Days after the synagogue shooting outside of San Diego, I wrote in Religion Dispatches about the antisemitic ideology that helped motivate the shooter. Conspiracy theories about George Soros, ‘globalists’ and ‘cultural Marxists’ are on the rise in today’s far-right movements, imagining Jews as the hidden engineers of white dispossession, the arch-enemies of white nationalism. Progressives need to understand this resurgence of antisemitism in order to show up for Jews, protect all our movements from attack and stamp out the steady rise of white nationalism in America.
by Benjamin Balthaser
Originally published on Jewschool, November 19, 2016
The electoral college victory of Donald Trump sent the progressive Jewish community reeling, not least because of his campaign’s naked deployment of anti-Semitic imagery and rhetoric. Just days before the election, a Trump ad linked Clinton to “global structures of power” that featured the faces of Janet Yellen, George Soros, and Lloyd Blankfein; another meme featured piles of money with a six-pointed Star of David; he told a group of Jewish GOP supporters that he “doesn’t want your money.” Steve Bannon, a well-known anti-Semite, is now Trump’s chief policy adviser.
After two decades of both major parties courting Jewish voters with support for Israel and appointing Jews within top cabinet positions, it was tempting to believe, along with Max Blumenthal and many others, that anti-Semitism as an organizing force in American life and politics was over. Surely, there may be a small neo-Nazi group holed up in the mountains of Idaho and occasional blowhards from the UFO wing of the Aryan Nation, but nothing like what our parents or grandparents experienced with the rise of Father Coughlin and the anti-Semitic Gotterdammerung of the red scare and Rosenberg trial. And after years of hearing Likudniks, even liberals, wielding anti-Semitism as a crude political weapon against Jewish critics of Israel, rolling one’s eyes at the yearly Yom Kippur handwringing about the rise of anti-Semitism and the precarious position of global Jewry became a kind of left-wing right-of-passage. Leave the shtetl horror stories to the Anti-Defamation League (ADL); we have real work to do fighting injustice.
While I’ve never counted myself among the Jews who see Cossacks riding down from every hilltop, I’ve also never been very sanguine about friends’ frequent assurances that all is fine in our American Zion. Unlike the majority of my progressive Jewish friends and family, I did not grow up in the city or even in the suburbs. My small town in rural California was at the time (transformed now utterly by the wine industry and California real estate speculation) white, lower middle-class, evangelical. My friends’ parents and neighbors worked construction, drove busses, climbed utility poles, sold used cars. Many were prison guards.
Structural racism was the built architecture of my hometown. I remember the one row of “slums” off the main street – ramshackle houses and trailer parks – where Mexican-American and Filipino farmworkers lived. The college twenty miles away was planned as a “sundown town,” in which African Americans were expected to leave by dark, right up until the 1970s. Yet anti-Semitism was also part of the texture of town life – if not the chorus, at least the melody. It was common for my school chums to talk about “Jewing someone down” on price; if you cheated someone or stole something, friends would ask if you’d “like a bagel with that”; a swastika was carved into my locker in high school, and swastikas were regularly spray-painted on the Central Coasts’ sole temple. One of my first girlfriends asked me blankly why Jews were so greedy, and there was of course the annual ritual humiliation, as the only Jew in my classroom, to explain both Chanukah and the Holocaust. When my right-wing social studies teacher forced us to listen to free-market lectures by Alan Greenspan, he prefaced them by saying “now that’s a smart Jew.” A white nationalist spat in my face; another chased after me with a baseball bat (although I was never certain if the Nazi chased after me because I was known to be Jewish, or frequently assumed to be queer).
My first inkling that the anti-Semitism of my hometown had an origin point was the day my older brother came home from a friend’s evangelical church to announce that the Jews deserved the Holocaust for rejecting Jesus. My bother’s announcement prefigured what was my mother’s strange twenty-year odyssey as the only Jewish church organist in town — maybe any town — playing in a dozen churches before she retired. How she came to be a Jewish church organist is, as they say, a long story – put simply, she liked baroque organ music, it was a small town, and churches pay. She had a choir loft seat to small town American religious life that few outside that world have. And she experienced that world as a Jewish woman, one with a particularly well-tuned ear for anti-Semitism, having grown up in the conservative sunbelt of the outer San Fernando Valley in the 1950s.
She related to me a Sunday-after-Sunday barrage of anti-Semitic sermons. The sermons did not relate the Jews’ rejection of Jesus as simply a debatable historical fact; rather the rejection was something essential to Jewishness. A Catholic priest said we must “pray for the perfidious Jews”; “Jews were bind and stupid for rejecting Jesus” a Lutheran pastor argued; another Lutheran day school repeatedly sung the verse “the Jews are the Pharisees and the Pharisees are hypocrites;” my mother was asked by a priest if “Jewish fingers” could play “Christian hymns.” The sermons were “week after week” she said. When she asked one parishioner why the pastor repeated the same sermon about the Jews, the parishioner responded, “it brings in converts.”
Quickly she learned to keep quiet about her ethno-cultural identity. When pressed, she would give a sly smile, a side-eye, and respond that she was a “lapsed Zoroastrian.”
As April Rosenblum writes in her influential pamphlet “The Past Didn’t Go Anywhere,” anti-Semitism can be hard to spot and talk about, as it doesn’t look like other forms of racial and religious oppression. Eighty to ninety percent of the U.S.’s six million Jews are Ashkenazi; many members of this community are white, middle class and do not face the forms of state violence, environmental racism, underemployment, displacement, and incarceration faced by people of color and the poor. There is a palpable confusion one faces as both an object of discrimination and an object of privilege. Anti-Semitism often describes Jews as clever, even powerful. Yet as insightful as Rosenblum’s pamphlet is, it doesn’t help much to describe the sudden rise of Trump’s anti-Semitism; indeed, she treats it as a kind of transhistorical fact.
As racial theorists Michael Omi and Howard Winant propose in their classic Racial Formation in the United States, racism is the product of institutions and political coalitions, from the state violence of ethnic cleansing to legal regimes of Jim Crow to segregated labor markets. Using the work of Italian Marxist theorist Antonio Gramsci, “racial formations” are hegemonic blocs that seek to take power through racial projects, whether progressive in the name of affirmative action and antiracism, or reactionary, in the name of white supremacy and mass incarceration. In other words, racism is not primary a psychological issue as it’s often discussed, a question of hate or fear (the phase “Islamophobia” has always bothered me, as if anti-Muslim acts are a primarily a question of affect). The production of race is a question of shifting power blocs and political projects that allow such fears, feelings, affects, to harden into public acts and legal codes as a means of and a cause for seizing power.
Many of my friends who grew up in “blue America,” in big cities or central suburbs, have told me they’ve never experienced an anti-Semitic slur. Growing up in rural America, I experienced them constantly. I have no animus against Christianity, and applaud the many churches that have been on the frontlines of the struggle for racial justice since America’s violent foundation. Yet my experience with conservative Christianity in rural America was to observe an institutional site of anti-Semitic thought, or at least a space in which such thought is considered normal and acceptable. This extends to other institutions in which right-wing Christianity holds hegemonic power. In what Stephen Glade refers to as the “Christianization of the army,” specifically the officer corps, Christian anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim bias pervades the military, affecting everything from performance reviews, promotion, and assignments. To paraphrase a recent internet meme, anti-Semitism may not explain Trump voters, for evangelicals, who were a major part of Trump’s electoral coalition, it wasn’t a dealbreaker, either.
Which is to say, right-wing anti-Semitism never went anywhere. It may have been buried under a consensus between traditional liberal and conservative parties that support Israel; it was quieted by the always-louder voices of anti-black racism; dampened by the sheer architectural terror of border fences, prison walls, and police sirens. And yet it should be understand as a central part of Trump’s message.
Amid the economic populism that fueled the campaign, the image of the Jewish financier, on piles of money, chairing the Fed, as CEO of Goldman-Sachs became not only a nod to the prejudices of Trump’s right-wing base, it served as part of its affective infrastructure. Lacking a critique of capitalism, anti-Semitism serves, the pre-War German left was fond of saying, as the socialism of fools. That Steven Bannon is both the Trump administration’s most vocal critic of the U.S. financial sector and it’s most visible anti-Semite should come as no surprise; indeed, it’s almost a wonder it’s taken this long for anyone to notice.
If there is any silver lining to the Trump campaign’s naked anti-Semitism, my hope is that it may help to disentangle many of myths around anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism. For the last twenty years it’s been taken as an article of faith in both liberal and conservative circles that the strongest currents of anti-Semitic thought and action in the U.S. are part of the campaign to boycott, divest, and sanction (BDS) Israel for its ongoing occupation of Palestinian land and blockade of Gaza. In Hillary Clinton’s most recent speech before AIPAC, combatting anti-Semitism was synonymous with combatting the BDS movement and other critics of Israel. As Roger Cohen wrote in the New York Times, it is the internationalist left that is currently responsible for the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe and an imagined scourge of anti-Semitism on college campuses. For the last two decades, the image of the anti-Semite has not been a right-wing evangelical or an “alt-right” white nationalist; it has been a campus anti-Zionist activist wearing a Keffiyeh.
As a long-time veteran of progressive social movements and also of the BDS movement, I have never experienced the kind of anti-Semitism there that I experienced in my hometown. Are there sometimes crazy conspiracy theories about Israel? Yes. Do people say insensitive things? Of course. However, whatever anti-Semitism I experienced in my years in Students for Justice in Palestine did not compare to the many years of verbal, and sometimes quite literal, violence I experienced as one of the few Jews in a rural, conservative, evangelical community. SJP is a human rights organization dedicated to the liberation of all peoples. There is no comparison between it and the political project of white nationalism or Christian supremacy.
For progressive Jews, reconnecting anti-Semitism to the intellectual and political infrastructure of global white supremacy is one the many tasks ahead. There are ample examples of directions not to take. As pro-Israel critics and organizations refuse to attack to Trump over his selection of Bannon, we are beginning to witness a real split in the Jewish community, as it decides whether its support for Israel will outweigh its resistance to white supremacy. Even as the ADL lashes out at Trump’s anti-Semitism, it recently ruptured its ties with African American activists over their stance on Israel – condemning the Movement for Black Lives’ embrace of Palestinian rights and their critique of Israeli policy. As one African American Jewish writer noted, “I naively assumed that…a civil rights organization which presses for equal treatment under the law would have problems with a nearly 50 year illegal occupation in defiance of UN resolutions. ”
Rather than side with Israel over our allies of color in the U.S., it is Jewish alliances with activists of color that will defeat white supremacy in all its forms — whether in the U.S., or in Israel and Palestine. Linking Jewish fate with a racial state that engages in what looks like apartheid to most of the world does more than corrode “Jewish values,” it isolates us from our natural allies in the U.S. The decision to support a democratic state in the lands west of the Jordan River is not anti-Semitic – it is quite the opposite. It is to recognize that it is in long-term Jewish interest to defeat forms of racist power wherever they may exist. It is not a question of progressive Jewish tradition or Tikkun Olam, it is a question of long-term continued survival. As Israel is itself born out of a racially defined nationalist project, it seems there is a little question which direction AIPAC and other groups like it will take. Their ongoing support for Israel is not only reactionary and unethical, we need to understand it as short-sighted and dangerous as well.
In that sense, Jews need to rethink the passive politics of “allyship,” which assumes that Euro-American Jews should align with the struggles of people of color out of a desire for justice, perhaps the goodness of our hearts. As one activist said to me, “that’s fine if you’re a good person, but I want to know what skin you have in the game.” To fight anti-Semitism we are going to need an intersectional analysis. Intersectionality often sounds easy on paper but in practice it is difficult and complicated. Not all oppressions look the same, feel the same, have the same structural and institutional features. To many in movements for racial justice, Jews with European ancestry will be understood, quite rightly, as white people with all the social and legal benefits that go with it. It may be difficult and even embarrassing to insist on including an analysis of anti-Semitism when hate crimes are being committed against Muslims on the street and undocumented immigrants are threatened with deportation. But anti-Semitism is part of the cultural and political formations of white supremacy, and we need to acknowledge that defeating it is in our self-interest as well. It is also in the self-interest of any group fighting injustice. Anti-Semitism obscures the real sources of economic and political power. The Rothschilds are not the reason the banking sector collapsed in 2008; “New York values” do not explain a skyrocketing divorce rate; Israel is not the puppet-master guiding the strings of U.S. imperial policy in the Middle East, however much their interests may align. Unless we can address these twin facts openly and honestly, we will neither be able to defeat a Trump presidency – or bring peace to Israelis and Palestinians.
But even as its power grows, far-right antisemitism remains a poorly understood phenomenon for much of the Left. How are we on the Left to understand antisemitism? Why is it rebounding, with renewed vigor, in the era of Trump? And most importantly, how do we fight back?
Never Fully Extinguished
Anti-Jewish oppression has a long and complex history. In medieval Christian Europe, Jews were scapegoated and attacked, often bizarrely, as Christ-killers, murderers of Christian children, poisoners of Christian water-wells, and more. With the dawn of the Enlightenment, Jews were promised acceptance, only to be accused of “dual loyalty” and treason by newly existent nation-states. Anti-Jewish sentiment reached a fever pitch with race-based theories of innate, biological Jewish wickedness developed and perfected by Nazi fascism in the twentieth century.
While Jews living in the Middle East, Africa, Asia, and elsewhere around the world often lived in relative security and peace, in Europe, periods of Jewish coexistence and even prosperity alternated with episodes of intense persecution, violence, and exile, leading, over centuries, to deeply ingrained collective feelings of vulnerability, anxiety, and trauma.
After the horrific slaughter of one-third of the world’s Jewish population by German fascism, it may have seemed that centuries of persecution might come to a close, as before long, Jews came to experience unprecedented empowerment in America and Israel. In the United States, the majority of Jewish communities were lifted into the beckoning arms of middle-class suburbia by the same post-World War II economic and social policies that kept black people and other minorities in poverty. The creation of the state of Israel in 1948 and its military victories in the decades following, at the expense of displaced and dispossessed Palestinians, offered to the world the spectacle of militarily powerful Jews protected by their own nation-state.
Largely banished from the public sphere, antisemitism became synonymous with unthinkable evil. It seemed, finally, that Jews were safe. But from the fringes to the mainstream, antisemitism never truly disappeared from American society.
In the 1950s, Cold War McCarthyism carried clear antisemitic undertones, with the execution of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg and the frenzied witch hunt against disproportionately Jewish communists in unions and progressive organizations across the country. Beginning in the 1980s, neo-Nazi skinhead movements trafficked in Holocaust denial and later circulated ideas of “white genocide” that, as we shall see, put Jews at the center of a vast conspiracy to exterminate the “white race.” The dawn of the internet greatly bolstered white-supremacist organizing, sowing the seeds for the antisemitic alt-right, which would burst into wider public view with the rise of Trumpism.
Always the Hidden Puppeteers
Minutes before storming into Etz Chaim Synagogue on Saturday, Robert Bowers wrote on social media that the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), a Jewish immigrant and refugee support agency, “likes to bring in invaders that kill our people … I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered … I’m going in.” Bowers thought that, by targeting a synagogue involved in refugee relief, he was striking at the root cause of the migration which threatened his white race.
For white supremacists like Bowers, left-wing Jewish activists are the hidden masterminds behind immigration, Black Lives Matter, feminism, LGBTQ rights, political correctness, and all the other assorted “evils” of progressive politics that hinder the creation of their hoped-for white ethnostate. Alt-right theorists argue that throughout the twentieth century, American Jews mobilized hyper-focused networks of political and social capital to loosen the country’s immigration policies; orchestrated the Civil Rights Movement, integration, and other ills of “race mixing”; and engineered multiculturalism, relativism, sexual liberation, and other fronts of “cultural Marxism.”
The chant “Jews will not replace us,” heard at last year’s Unite the Right white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, embodies the alt-right fear that the all-powerful Jew remains the hidden puppeteer of progressivism, hell-bent on using liberal causes to keep whites outnumbered, emasculated, and demoralized.
More and more, these sentiments move, in both explicit and coded forms, from the margins to the mainstream of right-wing discourse. In the two weeks leading up to the massacre, a chorus of right-wing pundits, amplified by Trump’s Twitter account, insisted that the hand of George Soros lurked behind the migrant caravans, while prominent GOP voices claimed Soros was sneakily helping ensure Democratic wins in the midterm elections. Meanwhile, Soros’s home was the first to receive a bomb package on October 22 from alt-righter Cesar Sayoc, and earlier this month, flyers popped up on campuses across the country claiming that Jews were secretly behind sexual assault allegations against then-Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh.
Paradoxically, the far right blames Jews, not only for the progressive social movements of the Left, but also for the neoliberal austerity of the Right. Days before the 2016 election, Trump’s final and most prominent campaign adbeamed into millions of homes across the country the faces of Soros and other prominent Jewish figures, alongside condemnations of the “global power structure that is responsible for the economic decisions that have robbed our working class, stripped our country of its wealth and put that money into the pockets of a handful of large corporations and political entities.” The term “globalist” captures perfectly this bizarre assertion that the same “Jewish power” hoists upon dispossessed whites both the economic agenda that exports jobs and forecloses upon homes, and the social agenda that emasculates men, diversifies white communities, and mixes the races.
In short, according to the alt-right, Jews are “the principal enemy — not the sole enemy, but the principal enemy — of every attempt to halt and reverse white extinction.” In the words of neo-Nazi leader Victor Gerhard, “to rail against blacks and Hispanics without mentioning Jews is like complaining about the symptoms and not the disease.” Only by expunging the Jewish root can whites successfully reverse-engineer their dispossession, ensure their survival, and chart the course of their future. Antisemitism posits a vast Jewish conspiracy that can be deployed, both on the fringe and mainstream right, to obfuscate not only the true voices, faces, and demands animating progressive movements for social change, but also the true interests and actors behind neoliberal exploitation.
Antisemitism is a key pillar of white-supremacist thought, helping reinforce and repackage anti-immigrant sentiment, Islamophobia, patriarchy, and other reactionary ideas by lending the overarching veneer of a comprehensive, totalizing reactionary worldview. One always finds antisemitic conspiracy theories entangled with other oppressive ideologies, transcending and including them to offer a final meta-explanation: “it’s the Jews.”
Still the Socialism of Fools
Antisemitism is given this universal explanatory power at time when neoliberal capitalism has immiserated vast numbers of people. Framing their rule as a revolution against the “globalist agenda” of neoliberalism, today’s neofascist leaders promise to reestablish strong, sovereign nation-states, rooted in blood and soil, cleansed of “foreign infiltrators,” delivering longed-for stability and prosperity.
The last dramatic resurgence of antisemitic ideology in the 1930s, took root in similar circumstances, in the wake of a global financial crisis, when working- and middle-class whites from Germany to the US were desperate to understand and respond to their dreadful predicament. Like today’s alt-right, twentieth-century fascism blamed Jews, not only for the specters of communism, homosexuality, and other “left-wing ills” but also for the depredations of predatory finance capital.
But today, as in the 1930s, this “revolution from the right” is no revolution at all. Nationalists from Trump to Hungary’s Viktor Orban critique “the globalist elite” in theory, while in practice, plunging ordinary folks deeper into poverty and deepening the pockets of the ultrarich. Antisemitism, then and now, is a “foreshortened anticapitalism,” a “socialism of fools” promising false emancipation from illusory oppressors.
While many forms of oppression keep oppressed groups on the bottom rungs of society’s ladder, modern, European-derived antisemitism works when some Jews have moved up a few rungs, securing a relative degree of visible prosperity and power in society. During times of economic downturn and popular discontent, the anger of oppressed and exploited people gets redirected, like a pressure valve, away from capitalists as a class and onto the image of the conniving, all-powerful Jew.
“Peasants who go on pogrom against their Jewish neighbors” serving as the nobleman’s tax collectors, writes Puerto Rican Jewish poet and activist Aurora Levins Morales, “won’t make it to the nobleman’s palace to burn him out and seize the fields.”
Today, antisemites use the very fact that, over the twentieth century, some Jews entered visible positions in portions of the privileged and owning classes, while some others enthusiastically embraced progressive causes, as proof of the correctness of their conspiracies. The overwhelmingly white and Christian titans of heavy industry, big business, finance, oil, and the weapons industry are happy to support Trump, and while Soros gets scapegoated, happy to remain behind the scenes in their corporate boardrooms peacefully collecting mega-profits.
Conspiratorial antisemitism benefits the class interests of the 1 percent, and is rooted organically in far-right, white-nationalist movements. However, strands of the ideology also appear elsewhere. Conspiracy theories of nefarious Jewish control championed by figures like Louis Farrakhan serve to obfuscate the real capitalist relations behind the history of slavery, present-day racialized poverty, and more. Fringe voices claiming to support Palestinians — though shunned by the mainstream Palestinian rights movement, which stands against antisemitism — portray Jewish Zionists as conspiratorial infiltrators of the American government, single-handedly steering US foreign policy to support endless war in the Middle East. Marginal voices on the Left resurrect antisemitic Rothschild conspiracy theories to fashion half-baked, shoddy caricatures of neoliberalism, financial speculation, and other symptoms of capitalism.
How to Fight It
Wherever antisemitism rears its head, it steers people away from truly liberatory movements. Here, in its seductive explanatory power, lies its danger. It’s also where the Left can intervene.
If, as Walter Benjamin once said, “every rise of fascism bears witness to a failed revolution,” it is equally true that the spread of antisemitic conspiracism means that the Left has not yet succeeded in capturing the narrative. To fight antisemitism, socialists and progressives need to offer clear, compelling analyses showing who really profits from the systems of exploitation that assail working people in this country.
We need to remind people that, as one Twitter user put it, there is a small minority of elites who control the world’s political and economic systems at the expense of the world’s population, but it’s not the Jews — it’s the bourgeoisie.
The Left also needs to understand better how antisemitism really operates: to redirect popular anger onto a convenient scapegoat, leaving the real enemies of the people unscathed. The obstacles to this understanding are many. Too often, our culture presents antisemitism as an inexplicable, unfathomable prejudice; a baseless hatred unconnected to broader structures of power and oppression we see around us. For example, the chief takeaway from much mainstream Holocaust education is that some people just hate Jews — no further explanation needed. Or, it’s seen as a tragic holdover from the 1940s, with little relevance to today’s world. Too often, false charges of antisemitism are used to batter Palestinians, Arabs, Muslims, and any progressive movement that stands up for Palestinian rights.
In order to combat these obfuscations, progressive movements need to trace antisemitism’s often complicated forms, illuminating the specific, material ways it benefits those in power and intersects with other oppressions. We need to give a clear analysis and condemnation of antisemitism, not only to defend Jews but also to ensure our broader movements remain rooted in sober, material comprehension of the forces against us.
Non-Jewish progressives need to support Jews facing antisemitic attacks in the United States without preconditions, expectations, or assumptions. Bringing up Israel when Jews get attacked simply for being Jews is ignorant at best and antisemitic at worst. But while the gesture of direct, unmediated solidarity is simple, grappling with the real-world, messy relationships between Jews and other minoritized groups can be anything but. Precisely because antisemitism functions by elevating some Jews and Jewish communities to positions of relative power or privilege vis a vis other minority groups, serious seeds of discord have been sown between groups that should be allies in the fight against white supremacy.
Tensions around a host of issues — Israel/Palestine, mistrust between white Jews and non-Jewish people of color, or across other fault lines — create mutual suspicion, resentment, and hostility between Jews and other groups, leading to a “divide and conquer” effect that ultimately weakens the Left and strengthens the Right. This leads many Jews to conclude that only allying with the powerful — for example, putting cops in synagogues, uncritically supporting Israel, and in some cases, even embracing Trumpism — will truly keep us safe. Progressive Jews must continue working to move our communities away from complicity and towards solidarity, while vocal non-Jewish solidarity against antisemitism will help do the same.
Unfortunately, after antisemitic attacks like Pittsburgh, mainstream narratives often dictate that only Israel will truly keep Jews safe, and that to show solidarity, non-Jews should support Israel. However, Israel has allied itself squarely with fascist regimes the world over — including regimes that are overtly antisemitic — and its policies vis a vis Palestinians, African migrants, Jewish dissidents, and others have long bore more than a passing resemblance to the far-right authoritarianism now plaguing our world. Until Palestinians are free, supporting Israel ultimately will not help Jews or anyone get truly safe or free. Progressives and leftists need to make this clear.
The way forward is familiar, though the path windy. We must fight antisemitism with solidarity. This alone can defeat white supremacy, keep us all safe, and get us all free.
The Jew of conscience is in pain.
We are in pain when we are told by family, friends, peers and Jewish communal leaders that we are ‘bad Jews’, ‘fake Jews’, ‘self-hating Jews’ for supporting Palestinian calls for full freedom and equality, and opposing Israel’s violations of Palestinian human rights.
We are in pain when we are told by our fellow Jews that we have no right to cast our lot with the Jewish people, because we say ‘not in our name!’ to Israel’s brutal, unceasing oppression of the Palestinian people. We are in pain when this violent denunciation- ‘self-hating Jew!’- seems to rob us of our Jewish legitimacy, deny us our right to inherit our people’s past and stake a claim in our people’s future, cast us brutally outside the bounds of peoplehood.
We are in pain when we see our own people seemingly abandon Jewish values of justice, forget the lessons of our past, and visit unceasing oppressions upon the backs of Palestinians- and upon our backs, too. In both cases, we are in pain when we see others remain silent. We are in pain when, seemingly exiled from our people, we find it hard to weave together the strands of a new Jewish identity for ourselves, when the cultural, religious and political traditions at hand have been seemingly consumed by Israel-support.
We Jews of conscience speak out to the world, denouncing the ways in which we are shut out of Jewish communities because of our support for Palestinian rights. Yet my perception is that we rarely have the space, within our own communities, to talk openly about the trauma of our excommunication. We tell ourselves that, in the urgency of the work, and with the need to bear witness to Palestinian suffering, it is indulgent to dwell too much on our own trauma. The wounds are raw, and like many pains, are easiest shared in silence. But a wound suppressed is one that festers, one that has the danger to cloud judgment, impede clarity, and distort how we relate to others, and to ourselves.
This article is an attempt to lovingly excavate some of the pain of the Jew of conscience, to explore the often fraught, tangled ways this pain structures the way we relate to our own Jewishness, and to broader Jewish communities. When we don’t work to heal from this pain, I argue, we can become estranged from our Jewish identities, and alienated from Jewish ritual and culture. We can deepen our isolation from Jews who aren’t with us politically, and relate to them in ways that do little to change hearts and minds. To build the Jewish future we need, we must work to intentionally reconnect, with full hearts, to our Jewishness, to our trauma, and to the rest of the Jewish people.
First, a note on terminology. The term ‘Jew of conscience’ was coined by Jewish theologian Marc Ellis in the 1980s, to refer to Jews who bear prophetic witness to Israel’s oppression of Palestinians. I use the term ‘Jews of conscience’ here primarily to mean Jews who today publicly embrace the Palestinian call for BDS, endorse the Palestinian refugee right of return, and/or challenge Zionism. These are the ‘taboo’ positions around which Jewish communal red lines are most clearly drawn, and Jews who take these positions, therefore, face most brutally the scapegoating, excommunication and trauma I describe. Jews who publicly oppose Israel’s 50-year occupation also face plenty of opposition, and will find much to relate to in these lines. By using the term ‘Jews of conscience’ in this way, however, I do not mean to imply that pro-BDS/anti-Zionist Jews are the only Jews acting from a place of conscience around these issues- it is simply a useful term!
While my observations are formed by years organizing professionally, and as a grassroots activist, in Jews of conscience circles, I don’t pretend to speak for everyone. Some will find much, and some little, that resonates in these lines. I write because we Jews of conscience are visionary, and powerful. We are transforming the American Jewish community, and in the coming years, as Israel lurches further rightward, the views we hold will continue to gain broader acceptance. It is even more vital, then, that we think critically and fearlessly about the complexities, pitfalls and promises of how we relate to Jewishness, to other Jews and to ourselves. I write with the hope, at this pivotal and terrifying moment, not that we Jews of conscience may instantly overcome our pain, but that we may learn to dwell with it, with ourselves, and with the Jewish future which dwells in our midst, which erupts in real time from the work of our hands.
Tracing our Pain
‘Self-hating Jew’. ‘Traitor’. ‘Court Jew’. ‘Fake Jew’. ’Kapo’.
We hear it from our Jewish peers, who treat our support for Palestinian rights with fear, suspicion and distrust. We hear it from our family, who greet our views with disappointment, betrayal, outrage and shame. We hear it from the institutional leaders of the Jewish world, who tell us, with unflinching certainty, that we are disturbed, monstrous, transgressive and illegitimate Jews.
We Jews of conscience hear day after day, from nearly all corners and crevices of the Jewish world, the same message- You don’t belong. You are an aberration, a traitor, an outsider. We reject you; you are no longer one of us. Some of us receive curses, hate mail, even death threats for taking a stand. We are mocked derisively from the bima, laughed at in the JCC, sneered at in Hillel. We are barred from jobs at Jewish day schools, synagogues, summer camps.
A sponsored Facebook ad, shown to members of NYU’s Jewish community, portraying Jews of conscience as the ‘black sheep’, outcast from the rest of the Jewish community.
We worry we will be ostracized from social groups, passed over for Jewish leadership roles, and denied B’nai Mitzvah, burial in a Jewish cemetery, or even a warm Shabbat dinner, for being one of those ‘self-hating Jews’. The fear runs deep, and nestles into every little crevice of our Jewish lives. It is no secret that we are the scapegoat of the American Jewish community, and it hurts.
On the surface, of course, we reject that we are deficient Jews in any way. We assert our Jewishness with pride, and in many cases, we respond to the abuse we face not by shrinking from but by stepping up our Jewish engagement. We build vibrant Jewish communities, inside and outside the mainstream. Our Judaism is fierce and powerful, and we know it.
And yet, under the weight of abuse, it is easy to internalize, on some level, the message that there is something other-than, something broken about our Jewishness. That somewhere, deep down, we must be missing ahavat yisrael, love of the Jewish people, if we are so eager to criticize Israel so loudly. The pain runs deep, and can grip our Jewish identity-formation at its innermost point, clouding our pintele yid– that indestructible spark of Jewishness within us- with confusion and self-doubt. We might feel this pain even if we don’t seek legitimacy from, or desire to join, mainstream Jewish communities. For on the deepest level, we still yearn to recognize ourselves, and to be recognized, as a legitimate part of the Jewish people, and that is precisely what is denied to us- that is precisely where it hurts.
Our pain is magnified because we know that, when we break with Israel, we break hearts- the hearts of our elders, our family members, those in our communities for whom Israel is anchor of their Jewish identities, refuge in their time of distress, living symbol of the concrete assurance that, so soon after the traumas of the 20th century, the Jewish people will endure. We wish we could take our elders’ hands, meet their eyes, and plead to them, “I am proud and grateful to be Jewish, I promise you, please don’t worry! Even though you don’t understand why I do what I do, please understand- I am committed to the Jewish people, to inheriting the covenant you worked so hard to pass on to me- please believe me!” We cannot help but feel guilt that we have triggered these fears- and anger that history itself has put us, and them, in such an impossible position.
Owning our Jewishness
After being told, in no uncertain terms, that we will never be accepted as Jews, some of us scornfully turn away from most aspects of Jewish identity or practice entirely. The attempts we make to connect with the Jewishness of our upbringing- to inhabit the traditions, cultures, communities in which we dwelt comfortably before awakening to the truth of Palestinian dispossession- are laced with the bitterness of betrayal, the sting of anger.
If we didn’t grow up with strong Jewish identity or community, it can be very difficult to develop that identity anew for oneself, while grappling at the same time with the truth of Israel/Palestine. How fraught it can be for many of us, to feel drawn to the simple beauty of Jewish texts and traditions, while we are repelled so brutally by Israel’s occupation and our community’s support of it- and to be attacked so viciously by other Jews, for speaking out!
We are warmed by the fire of Jewish identity, drawn- as evinced by our very proclamation that we are ‘Jews for Palestinian rights’- to cleave proudly to our Jewishness, despite the trials of these times. And yet, we are repulsed by our community’s support for Israel’s crimes; pushed away by their slandering us as ‘fake Jews’; and convulsed with shame, for the oppressive stance our people is taking on the world stage. Some of us find it near impossible, at least for the time being, to fully own and embrace our Jewishness outside of circumscribed displays of solidarity. It is simply too painful.
Perhaps we fear that Jewishness itself, like the Jewish elders from whom we learned it, may lash out at us if we get too close. On a deeper level, perhaps we don’t fully trust that we, the ‘bad Jews’, are entitled to sing our peoples’ songs, light Shabbat candles, and otherwise be just like other Jews. We are so used to being told we have rejected the covenant, that it can be difficult to see ourselves up there on the bima, reciting words of Torah just like other Jews, without feeling guilty, subversive, out-of-place.
We find community in the Palestine solidarity movement- but our non-Jewish comrades often don’t know how to talk about antisemitism, and lack nuanced understanding of Jewish history and identity. We build small communities of Jews of conscience, and begin the work of healing together. But caught between a mainstream Jewish community which has abandoned us, and a Palestine movement in which we often do not feel fully at home, our isolation is magnified.
How difficult it can be, to stumble upon this terrifying juncture in Jewish history, and, with little roadmap to guide us, to have to parse out the false from the true, the sacred from the profane, that which we must inherit from that which we must transform or cast away! How difficult, to be called a ‘fake Jew’ just as we are discovering, for the first time or anew, how to be a real Jew! Faced with this impossibly weighty task, our Judaism is for us both a source of healing and an open wound, a place of refuge and a restless question.
For many of us, healing starts with finding and building progressive Jewish spaces that welcome our whole selves, where in laughter, song, ritual, culture and simply being Jewish together, we share the pain of our condition. We quickly find that the journey to rebuild an honest, compassionate and accountable Jewishness of conscience is a beautiful struggle- one that befits a people for whom being klal Yisrael itself is a struggle, a wrestling with G-d!
Crafting our Ritual
We are eager to create new ritual and culture, and alter existing practices, to reflect our convictions as Jews of conscience. We design Palestine solidarity Shabbat dinners, Passover Seders and more, using ritual as a tool to uplift the anguish of our tears, the gnawing of our fears, the fervency of our hopes as an offering to the fraught moment of Jewish history in which we live.
Our resolve to bear witness, through ritual and culture, to the reality facing our people, is admirable. And yet, sometimes these ritual spaces revolve around the urge to condemn Israel, express shame for its crimes, distance ourselves from its actions, signal our disgust- and little else. The ritual we create can feel like window dressing for an exercise in apologetics, a public confession of guilt, betraying a relentless quest to purify our traditions by rooting out anything deemed remotely suspicious, leaving little besides alienation in its place.
We fixate on Israel as the original sin of our people; we condemn the fallenness of our tribe. Far from a prophetic call for justice, the single-mindedness of our shame brings to mind a Christian impulse of perpetual self-flagellation, rather than a Jewish ethos of finding the spark of redemption, the wholeness within a broken heart.
It is not a mystery why, in this moment, our liturgy takes this tormented tone. We feel so betrayed and confused that our people have emblazoned such a beautiful menorah upon such ugly weapons of war, that we dig into tradition itself, anxious to locate where we went wrong, desperate to purge the original sin. With Israeli flags adorning most bimas– with Israel-support playing such a central role in the normative sense of Jewish peoplehood- we are living in unprecedented times, wading into uncharted territory, with little to guide us. Faced with this weighty contradiction, we resolve that our task is to strenuously assert the antithesis, to craft a Judaism which, at every twist and turn, uproots that which corrupts, calls out a warning, condemns the dangerous path our people are taking.
But a spirit of negation won’t, by itself, carry us through to the Jewish future. ‘The sea will not open that way’ (Aurora Levins Morales, ‘The Red Sea’). We need also to actively cultivate love of Jewishness, for its own sake; joy for our ritual and cultural traditions, in all their beauty and wisdom; gratitude that our people have survived to see these times, vexing though they be; and a vulnerable mourning fueled at root, not by guilt and shame, but by compassion. The door to the Jewish future will be unlocked, not by the cleverness of our hot takes, nor by the burning of our anger or the fervor of our guilt, but by the positivity of our Jewish love and joy.
When we turn to our traditions, our trauma can guide us to see them as our pursuer and opponent- ‘what here leads to problematic support of Israel, what must be purged and disavowed?’- or to use them as a defensive shield, or an attacking spear- ‘how can we use this to critique the Jewish establishment, and bolster our self-certainty as Jews of conscience?’ Instead, our spirit of innovation must be grounded in a radical amazement and gratitude. We must seek to dwell open-hearted and empty-handed with our traditions, to bring them closer, for their own sake, into the beating hearts of our lives. When we pray- or express ourselves Jewishly in other ways- our sorrowful anger for Israel’s crimes must mingle with our gratitude, our gladness at simply being Jewish. The bitter and the sweet must complement each other.
Transforming our People
Many of us resolve that our principal task, in this moment, is to build radical spaces- shuls and havurot, communities and institutions, friendship groups and networks- on the margins, for Jews of conscience. Our task at hand, we say, is to build and strengthen these counter-hegemonic institutions and communities, so that, as the contradictions of the establishment sharpen, more Jews will grow disillusioned and join us. When the establishment finally crumbles, we tell ourselves, our communities will stand redeemed, pointing the way towards the future.
There is much of merit to these positions- for many Jews of conscience, the task at hand is indeed to build, safeguard and strengthen alternative spaces where we can heal, learn and envision the future. For many of us who have been deeply abused and traumatized by the mainstream- not only because we are Jews of conscience, but because of multiple marginal identities we hold- this is deeply important. And yet, this strategy alone cannot build the Jewish future.
A small siloed movement of Jews of conscience, cordoned neatly off from the rest of the Jewish people, surfacing occasionally to yell and chant slogans of liberation outside their doors before congratulating ourselves on the correctness of our analyses, and disappearing from view- this strategy alone, too, cannot build the Jewish future. While this may be valuable in the short term, to sharpen and expose the current contradictions in the Jewish community while winning some adherents, in the long term, this strategy alone does not get anyone free.
It does not free mainstream Jews, most of whom remain trapped under the hegemonic sway of the establishment and view us, as they have been taught and as our self-isolation confirms, as untouchable outsiders. It does not free Jews of conscience, who remain in exile from the vast majority of our people. And most importantly, it does not free Palestinians, who ultimately need Jews of conscience to plant deep, lasting roots in the mainstream Jewish communities that we need to help transform.
The Jew of conscience turns to the mainstream Jewish community which has exiled us, and with a booming voice, calls on it to change. Standing outside the doors of our establishment institutions, we detail the anti-Palestinian crimes for which they are responsible or complicit, decry their grotesque lack of accountability, and throw at their feet all manner of piercing accusations. We mark them, in the pain and anger of our betrayal, as awful Zionists, disgustingly complicit in atrocities. We tell them they are racist, Islamophobic, colonialist, privileged, violent…the list goes on. ‘Shame! Shame!’, we yell. Do they listen?
When you protest an abusive boss’s complicity in exploitation at his workplace, the primary task is not to unlock his heart, but to build a consensus that he is an exploiter, and to force him, through sheer pressure, to change. But when you protest the American Jewish community’s complicity in Israel’s oppression of Palestinians, you’re dealing with a traumatized people, a people still struggling, only two or so generations after surviving the most terrible genocide, and most shocking series of expulsions, in its history, to learn to trust others, to handle fears of imagined powerlessness, and to recognize and accountably deploy its actual power.
When a boss talks about his workplace, he’s talking about his greed; when mainstream American Jews talk about Israel/Palestine, they’re talking about their fear. When American Jews protest American Jews, we are negotiating our communal trauma. Without diluting the substance of our critique- which is usually correct- and without wholly stifling our rage- which is legitimate- we also need to lead with love, and deliver rebuke in a way that will unlock hearts. What would it look like to cultivate accountable compassion, in our own hearts, towards our Jewish community, and to hold them, in turn, to compassionate accountability for their complicity in Israel’s crimes? (I am grateful to Dove Kent, Cherie Brown and Helen Bennett, who in their ‘Understanding the Intersections of Antisemitism and Racism’ trainings, develop further this concept of ‘compassionate accountability and accountable compassion’.)
How can we even take the first step, and extend our hand in compassion, when many mainstream Jews are likely to swat it away, and call us ‘self-hating Jews’? A vicious cycle is at play here- they demonize us and push us away; we become traumatized, and our hearts harden; we scornfully lash out at them in the rage of protest, and their hearts harden. To interrupt this cycle, it is incumbent upon allies of Jews of conscience- progressive Jews who are still accepted in mainstream Jewish spaces- to demand an end to the abuse we face.
And yet, while we are not to blame for our wounds, we Jews of conscience must resist the temptation to set ourselves apart. We must not be afraid to show up, again and again, in the institutions and communal spaces of our people, to get involved and demand to be counted. We must not leave our politics at the door- but we also must not come primarily to proselytize or to do battle. We must show up, first and foremost, simply because we want to connect, open up, share traumas, and build, upon the very fissures which separate us, the indissoluble ties which reaffirm that, in truth, we are one people. We can hope to change them not by ceaselessly distancing ourselves from them, but by diving deeper with them, really claiming them as our own.
It starts with getting in touch with our own pain, helping each other heal from it. It also starts with overcoming the knee-jerk impulse to treat fellow Jewish people or Jewish communities who support Israel with fear, scorn or condescension. Forgiving them for what they have done to us- and forgiving ourselves, embracing the powerful, embodied, joyous Jews of conscience we are- are in truth, two sides of the same coin.
The mainstream Jewish community abuses us because they are afraid. In the wake of the immense traumas of the 20th century, they clutch Israel close as the only safe space they know, and frantically push away any Jews, like us, whose dissent threatens the stability of their unsustainable solution to the Jewish question. In this way, their abusive behavior towards us- that peculiar panic and rage that wells up in the hearts of our accusers, as they denounce us as traitors- is, quite literally, the displaced pain of antisemitism, traveling, like so many pains for so many peoples, below the surface across generations, deeply felt and dimly comprehended.
Thus, in a supreme historical irony, the outcasts of the world have created, within their own ranks, a new class of outcasts. As the Jews were scapegoated by the world as traitors, disloyal, pathologically rotten, idealists and cosmopolitans- we Jews of conscience are scapegoated today, by the mainstream of our own community, with these very same tropes. Our excommunication is, in a sense, the internalized antisemitism of the Jewish people writ large, the Jewish question played out anew within the body politic of the Jews themselves, taking us as its target, rendering us the outcasts of the outcast, the Jew among the Jews.
Future historians will look upon this excommunication as a tragedy of epic proportions for the Jewish people. Under the cry of ‘self-hating Jew!’, untold thousands of Jews have been slandered and banished with a sweeping vigor unparalleled in modern Jewish history. One day, our people will look back upon this self-inflicted wound upon the body of am Yisrael with shame. And they will see it, correctly, as a lynchpin of the very structure that keeps American Jewish support for Israel’s occupation in place.
We Jews of conscience are in pain, flung out at the raw edge of the turbulent trial into which history has flung our traumatized people. We have learned many lessons from this liminal space we are forced to inhabit. In our exile, we bear witness to the prophetic voice of critique, we teach to the world the supreme importance of principled moral dissent. But in order to most effectively speak to our own people- which, after all, is our mandate and task at hand- we need to lead from a place of love, cultivating accountable compassion and holding others to compassionate accountability. And to do this, we need to work on our own trauma.
It takes deep bravery, strength, and conviction to stand bravely and speak loudly, as Jews of conscience, in these tormented times. We Jews of conscience are very good Jews, despite what our detractors say about us. It is hard work to forgive them- to forgive ourselves- indeed, to forgive history itself for putting our entire people, and we Jews of conscience in particular, in such a tormented position. Cultivating self-love as Jews of conscience- this, too, is hard work, is a practice, in these times. This, too, is the work of building the Jewish future. “It is not incumbent upon you to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist from it.”
‘Zionism is not Judaism!’
We hear this every day from Palestine solidarity activists, Jewish and non-Jewish. Usually it is said with good intentions, a way to designate Zionism, as a political movement and ideology with modern genealogy and sensibilities, from Judaism, as a centuries-old religious peoplehood tradition. And indeed, it is important and correct to make this distinction, to challenge the commonly held notion that Zionism and Judaism are two words for the same phenomenon, that the modern state of Israel is organically rooted in Judaism, the end goal of Jewish thought, yearning and practice ‘since time immemorial’.
And yet, too often ‘Zionism is not Judaism!’ is presented as the end of the story in Palestine solidarity circles. It is imagined that some unchanging, tranquil essence called ‘Judaism’ has been hijacked by an utterly foreign, sinister, parasitic entity called Zionism. Judaism fell from grace, and waits to be redeemed from the narrow clutches of nationalism. Those Jews who center their Zionism firmly in their Judaism, it is reasoned by many Palestine solidarity activists, must simply be confused or misinformed about their own Jewishness, or otherwise just plain racist. In truth, this popular notion that ‘Zionism is not Judaism- end of story’ betrays a shallow and surface-level understanding of Jewish history and consciousness.
Judaism/Jewishness (here, I use the two words interchangeably) is not simply a static set of rituals, practices and a belief system. It is also the embodied, lived experience and narrative of a people, unfolding in history and time. Jewishness is no more or less than the totality of whatever the Jewish people are doing at any given moment in history. On a concrete level, the upbuilding of the state of Israel is a major part of what the Jewish people have been doing on the planet over the last 100 years. It is an unavoidable fact that, especially over the last half-century, the Zionist project has taken center stage in the hearts and minds of most Jews on the planet. The state of Israel- as an idea, and as an actual living society- has served as the site where some of the most pressing questions of Jewish peoplehood- universalism vs particularism; secularism vs. religiosity; assimilation and its discontents, and more- have played out.
It is important to say, again and again, that ‘Judaism is not Zionism’- that Judaism and Jewishness possesses incomparably more cultural, religious, ethical and historic content than a 100-year-old political project such as Zionism can possibly contain. Nonetheless, to stare the Jewish people in the face today, after Israel has so clearly played a central role in the collective imaginary of normative Jewish peoplehood, and to say ‘Zionism is not Judaism, duh’ is to betray a colossal naivete, willful ignorance or worse. Zionism is a part of Judaism.
Often, the ‘Zionism is not Judaism’ argument in Palestine solidarity circles runs something like this- ‘Judaism is a religion; Zionism is a nationalism; while it appears the latter has hijacked the former, in reality, the two have no relationship to each other, so to accuse us of attacking Judaism when we critique the state of Israel, is absurd’. They usually mean well, and indeed, it is important to distinguish legitimate criticism of Israel from antisemitism. But as an actual analysis of Jewishness, they miss the mark, viewing Judaism reductively through the lens of Christian hegemony as merely a ‘religion’ separate from the concrete genealogical, ethnic and/or ‘national’ experiences of the people that lived, clung to and evolved that religion across history. Judaism is not simply a ‘faith’, like Christianity or Islam, but also a people. To excise the ugly ‘national/peoplehood’ component in order to fit what remains in a Western (Christian) framework- whether done by the early Reform movement, or by modern activists trying to distinguish the historical actions of the Jewish collective (such as Zionism) from the ‘religion’ of Judaism- is to mangle and amputate Jewishness itself.
Moreover, when Jewish anti-Zionist activists adopt ‘Zionism is not our Judaism!’ as the principle posture by which we relate to Jewish peoplehood, we are more often than not choosing sloganeering over the hard work of meeting our people where they are at and, with care and commitment, dedicating ourselves to transforming our collective reality. We are saying to the millions of Jews who are actively or passively Zionist- ‘you are ugly and shameful to us, and until you change, we are going to delegitimize your identity, and work to separate ourselves from you’. We are deploying a rhetorical gesture that imagines a Judaism purified of its offending elements, sanitized, purged of the stench of nationalism and particularism- a Judaism of the ideal, a fantasy projection of a Judaism that might have turned out differently.
At its best, the proclamation ‘Zionism is not our Judaism!’ is the subversive assertion of a new Jewish identity that destabilizes the normative sense of Jewishness, broadens our imagination and allows us to envision new alternatives and futures. At its worst, it feels more like a performative gesture towards the non-Jewish Left, a way for Jewish activists to signal to their comrades ‘don’t worry, we’re Jews but we’re not those awful ugly Zionist Jews, please don’t associate us with them’. Either way, it cannot be a roadmap for dealing with actually existing Jews, in the flesh, with their current self-identities and political configurations.
The disavowal embedded in ‘Zionism is not our Judaism’ runs two parallel risks. On the one hand, the proclamation, similar to liberal cries of ‘Not my president!’ in the Trump era, can disassociate us as individuals from imagined complicity in an ongoing legacy of anti-Palestinian oppression in which, in various ways, we remain deeply complicit. On the other hand, this rhetorical gesture can serve to distance us from the bulk of our people, segment ourselves off, alienate us from the hearts and minds that, now more than ever, we need to build bridges with. If ‘Zionism is not our Judaism’, we might reason, then it is no longer our problem; we can leave it to others to disentangle the two for those Jews who have been led astray, while we focus on uplifting our exalted, purified anti-Zionist Judaism.
The truth is that Zionism is our Judaism in the sense that we inherit it; it is ours to reckon with; it is part of the unfolding story of our people. We cannot simply turn away, draw sharp lines of demarcation (you can’t pick and choose which parts of an inheritance you inherit), build anti-Zionist Jewish communities on the fringes, burn bridges with the mainstream, hold firm to the fervency of our convictions, and wait for the entire cursed edifice to fall. Were this to constitute the entirety of our Jewish communal transformation strategy, we would abdicate the position in which history has placed us, we would renounce our responsibility to dwell with and actively transform our people, in the present. It smacks of escapism, of a politics more concerned with demonstrating the purity of our radical position than with getting our hands dirty.
When Zionist Jews hear superficial ‘Zionism is not Judaism’ takes, they perceive it as an assault upon, or at least a misunderstanding of, their Jewish identity- and from their angle, they are correct. Zionism is part of their Judaism, not because they pray to a shrine of Theodore Herzl every day, nor because their Jewish identity solely or even primarily consists in defending Israel’s policies at every twist and turn- but because for them, Judaism and being Jewish is an inherently collective, politicized peoplehood that includes the lived collective experiences, in the modern age, of Israel and Zionism. Judaism for them is not just a faith, a set of rituals to worship a G-d they may not believe in; it is the experiences of deep suffering and national rebirth etched into our collective soul over the long 20th century, in traumatic and uplifting events many of us actually lived through. Judaism for them is the conviction that the complex, tangled set of emotions inherited from these experiences- hope, pride, desire, vulnerability, fear, righteous anger, concern for safety and survival- are inseparable from the need, in our own time, for a Jewish state.
Zionism for them, accordingly, is not support for any specific policy so much as it is a name given to this emotional reservoir underneath, one bound tightly with the living memories of Jewish peoplehood and embedded, for now at least, with the living soil of the Jewish state. Jewish Zionisms, and their emotional underpinnings, are as ‘Jewish’ as any other part of the hodgepodge of our modern Jewish identities, and must be treated, in this light, not with scorn, vitriol and performative distancing, but with compassion and care.
To be sure, Zionism emerged out of real Jewish life and real Jewish needs and conditions, but it is crucial to emphasize that it was not the only or ‘destined’ direction Jewish life could have taken in the 20th century. Zionism was the winner of a decades-long political battle within the Jewish community, over what self-determination and autonomy might look like. The forces of political nationalism emerged victorious, after more liberal and leftist Jewish ideologies- from the Bund in Eastern Europe to the Jewish communist movements in Iraq, Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa- were drowned in the floods of fascism, McCarthyism and other global transformations and catastrophes. But none of this was inevitable or predestined, and if Zionism holds sway over the hearts of so many Jews today, this does not mean it is ‘correct’ or meant to be- this is simply the condition in which history has placed our people, up to this point.
But to deny, as a Jew, that Zionism contains valid and legitimate parts of our people’s experience, is to compartmentalize our very identity, to amputate and suppress parts of our inheritance, to lock away, in a box in the closet labeled ‘Racism’, the tears, fears, hope and pride of a generation that lived through quite possibly the most terrifying events in our people’s history. Non-Jewish Palestine solidarity activists who only learn about Zionism from a BDS 101 presentation, miss this rich emotional depth, minimize and belittle it, hopefully unintentionally; when they proceed to lecture Jewish Zionists about the ‘true nature’ of their Zionism using BDS 101 talking points, they are goysplaining, and it is no wonder that many Jews don’t listen.
We anti-Zionist Jews, who want to build a better future for our people, cannot disavow the conditions that have created the present, rather we must own them, grapple with them head-on. We cannot compartmentalize the Jewish past into tidy boxes labeled ‘fallen’ and ‘righteous’, ‘problematic’ and ‘redeemed’, ‘ours’ and ‘not-ours’. ‘Owning up’ to Zionism is not just calling out and condemning, but also understanding and accepting. It is reckoning in a holistic way with the totality of our always messy, often beautiful, sometimes dark inheritance. In many ways, this is a more intellectually and emotionally difficult task, for it does not admit of easy binaries, tidy distinctions between a ‘good’ and ‘bad’, an ‘enlightened’ vs a ‘racist’ Judaism. It is also difficult to make room for complexity when, too often, calls for ‘complexity’ and ‘nuance’ have the effect, sometimes intentional, of derailing much-needed condemnation of and action against Israel’s human rights abuses.
This is not to say that we Jewish anti-Zionists must become Zionists, avoid articulating reasoned, unapologetic critiques of Zionism, or refrain from uplifting what Zionism looks like from the eyes of Palestinians, Mizrahi Jews and other minoritized groups on the ground (hint- it’s racism). This is our mandate! But in developing alternative identities, and relating to those Jews who don’t agree with us, let us not use our symbols, our fantasies, our hopes for the Jewish people as blinders, obscuring our ability to look squarely where we are, to see the “real movement of Jewish history”, to grasp the real conditions of Jewish life in the present. Let us not separate our hearts, like the Wicked Child of the Passover Seder, from our people. We will change hearts and minds not by ceaselessly disassociating from them, but by really diving in with them, and reaffirming that, at root, we are one people who are in this mess together, and must emerge from it together into our collective future.
[Ben Lorber is the campus coordinator for Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP). He talked with about the declining support for Israel and Zionism among Jewish Americans. In this interview, he is speaking as an individual, and not for JVP.]
IT’S NO secret that Zionism and support for settler-colonialism in Palestine are strong in the institutional Jewish community. How strong do you think those politics are? What impact do you think this has on American Jewish life?
I THINK the most important thing to say about those politics is that they’re weakening. The stranglehold, not only of support for Israel’s increasingly right-wing policies towards the Palestinian people, but of Zionism itself, is really slipping in the American Jewish community, especially when you look at younger generations of American Jews like you and I.
It seems like every day now, there are more and more reports and headlines that young American Jews don’t support Israel’s increasingly racist and xenophobic policies, and don’t hold the state at the center of their Jewish identities.
Especially with the rise of the Trump administration and the phenomenon of Trumpism in America, American Jews as a whole have seen Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu being great buddies with Trump, and that’s disturbing to the majority of American Jews who define themselves as liberal or progressive and are shocked by the policies of the Trump administration.
Every time Israel does something terrible–like the latest massacres in Gaza or the deportation of African refugees, to name two recent examples–we see many different sectors of American Jewry speaking out in new ways, with increasing intensity.
I also think that in the long term, it’s a fundamentally unnatural and unsustainable project to tie American Jewish identity to a nation-state halfway around the world, and to put the program of supporting its policies at the center of American Jewish identity. Many of us are actively concerned at Israel’s oppression of Palestinians and are working hard to broaden and deepen our Jewish identities beyond Zionism.
What impact has Zionism had on American Jewish life? First of all, it puts us on the wrong side of history.
Driven partly by inherited fears and traumas about anti-Semitism, the need to unconditionally support Israel means many of us end up allying with right-wing Christian Zionism and supporting reactionary U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. This leaves our institutional leadership and many in our communities alienated from progressive allies and divided from the left.
This is a very old tactic in Zionism, and it’s why during the early 1900s, Zionism was supported by European powers. They were worried about the strong phenomenon of European Jewish support for revolutionary movements, and they supported Zionism as a divide-and-conquer alternative for the Jewish community.
Over and over again today, you see these things like the Movement for Black Lives being attacked for being anti-Israel, or the Women’s March being attacked because of Linda Sarsour’s supposed anti-Semitism.
Unfortunately, many American Jews basically tend to be scared away from supporting these progressive causes because of the wedge issue of Israel, while false charges of antisemitism are weaponized to batter and weaken progressive movements.
It’s also a question of our community’s resources. Birthright raises tens of millions of dollars every year from American Jewish donors and institutions. What if that money was being used to make our synagogues affordable or to provide enriching, accessible, affordable Jewish life in America?
Imagine if, instead of putting defense of Israel’s illiberal policies at the top of its priorities list, our American Jewish communal institutions were committed with the same public vigor to supporting calls for social security, Medicare for all and affordable housing, to stopping Trumpism’s attacks on vulnerable minorities, and other progressive causes.
Finally, it’s a question of identity. There’s been a long process of assimilation of American Jewish identities–basically a similar phenomenon that happens with many cultures and identities under capitalism, where there’s a constant pressure to forget our traditions and to assimilate into consumer culture.
Contrary to popular belief, Zionism has helped a lot with that. For too many American Jews, the chief way we have been taught to express our Jewish identity is to support Israel’s policies. Forget learning in depth about our histories, forget religious practices–the way to show you’re a good Jew is to attack BDS.
In this way, despite presenting itself as an anti-assimilationist Jewish identity project, Zionism has paradoxically helped further American Jewish assimilation.
WHEN YOU look at young Jews in America today, what kinds of alternatives to that kind of navigation of Jewish identity are you seeing them put forward?
I THINK we’re at the beginning stages of a revolution in Jewish identity in America. I see young Jews on campuses all over the country creating and building alternative Jewish institutions.
For some of them, it’s organizations specifically advocating for Palestinian human rights as Jews, and for others, it’s simply a space outside of their Hillel–which has become overwhelmingly Zionist–where they just get together and enjoy and celebrate being Jewish.
More and more American Jews on college campuses are being alienated by the mainstream pro-Israel support they see in their Hillels, and so they’re building alternative institutions.
WHAT DO you see in these alternative institutions? What’s exciting about them?
ONE EXAMPLE I can think of is at Tufts University. They’ve had for a while this space called Alt-J, which is basically a monthly potluck Shabbat at someone’s house.
Each month, a different person is responsible for uplifting a different cause as far as the social justice work they’re doing, and it gives an opportunity for other people to get involved. Many similar non-Zionist Jewish spaces have formed on other campuses, outside of Hillel.
Here in Chicago, we have a space called Cool Chicago Jews–which started as a Facebook group, just a way for young non-Zionist Jews of Chicago to connect.
We have monthly Shabbats in people’s houses. Some folks gathered together and put on a Purim shpiel recently that had Yiddish and Ladino. And we have Passover seders that draw on ancient themes of liberation and imbue them with new radical messaging. At our recent Passover Seder, we had 50 young Jews in a room yelling ‘Free Palestine!’ and cheering. This is the future!
We also have Tzedek Chicago, a non-Zionist congregation with folks of all ages. Across the country, there are non-Zionist havurot (mini-congregations) springing up all over the place. Rabbinical schools are filled with non-Zionist and anti-occupation rabbis-to-be. The future of American Jewry’s relationship to Israel is an open question.
This isn’t a new phenomenon. For decades, especially since the 1960s, there have been a lot of grassroots progressive Jewish movements in America that combine radical politics and radical spirituality, to differing degrees.
But I think today, it’s bubbling up and growing stronger, and we’re seeing a proliferation of spaces for radical Jews who are involved with different organizing initiatives to connect and to share in community.
The common trope that you hear repeated again and again is that Zionism and support for Israel is the core way for Jews to connect with their Jewishness, and if we didn’t have support for Israel, our identities would be lost to assimilation. We would disappear as Jews if we didn’t all have support for Israel to unite us.
But I think these communities are proving that’s bogus. There are young Jews who are strongly anti-Zionist, but are just as strongly devoted to developing a strong Jewish identity. These DIY spaces and shuls are made by young Jews who are taking our Judaism into our own hands, and we’re building our Jewish future with our own sweat and hard work, and that’s what makes it so powerful.
WHY ORGANIZE as a Jew? Why is there a growth in interest in doing social justice work as Jews?
THIS IS a question that confronts a lot of leftists who happen to be Jews: Should I just organize as a worker and a human being, or as a white ally [if they’re a white Jew]? Or should I specifically attach a Jewish label to my activism?
I think the first answer to the question of “Why organize as a Jew?” is really simple: it’s just because it’s who we are. No matter how different folks who call themselves Jews came to their Jewish identities, if you identify as a Jewish person, and that identity is important to you, then you have every right to bring your identity to your organizing, just as we bring all of our identities to the work we do.
People throw around the phrase tikkun olam [repair of the world] a lot to say, “There is something inherently Jewish–something deep within our millenia-old tradition–about striving for justice.” Sometimes I think that’s true, and other times, I’m a little skeptical of that.
But one thing’s for sure–millions of American Jews in the modern era have put radicalism at the deep core of their Jewish identities.
For many American Jews who came of age in the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s, going on strike with your union and fighting for racial justice was the most deeply Jewish thing one could do. This was a core part of American Jewish identity in the first half of the 20th century, and it was suppressed mainly by anti-Semitic McCarthyism and assimilation (for many) into whiteness and the middle class.
I also think that today our institutional leadership is, for the most part, deeply reactionary, and a lot of people are outraged by that. So there is an especially strong impetus today to organize as Jews to tell our communal leadership, “Hey, we’re reclaiming our heritage that you’ve forgotten and you need to wake up.”
I think we’re seeing a surge in Jewish social justice organizing today because we’re looking at our communities, which are deeply embedded in white supremacy in a lot of ways, and we’re saying, “This needs to change.”
WHAT ROLE do you see the fight against anti-Semitism playing in the radical Jewish spaces that we’ve talked about? Do you think that these kinds of communities of Jews bring anything special to the fight against anti-Semitism, and with it, the fight for collective liberation of all people?
TOTALLY. I think a lot of Jewish folks have been rightly shocked to see the rise of the anti-Semitic alt-right, to see the white nationalist marchers chanting, “Jews will not replace us” in Charlottesville, and a lot of these folks are joining left-Jewish organizations. Being in community with other leftist Jews at scary times like this is deeply therapeutic and deeply empowering, and it makes these spaces even stronger.
The other side of the coin is that we see our institutional leadership getting the fight against anti-Semitism wrong. We see our mainstream Jewish organizations raising their voice to attack Linda Sarsour or the Movement for Black Lives, while, meanwhile, they aren’t spending enough time fighting the rise of the white nationalist alt-right.
So even more so, there’s this impetus to come together and build radical Jewish community that will get the fight against anti-Semitism right, and that will actually know who our enemies are.
This is a matter of our own long-term safety. In this moment, as anti-Semitic fascism is rising in this country, we’re concerned that our leadership is trying to harm and subvert grassroots movements like the Movement for Black Lives and leaders like Linda Sarsour–forces of progressive struggle, which are building the power to beat fascism.
Our community’s mistaken priorities are actually a colossal mistake that could be putting our bodies in danger in the long run. The BDS movement is one of the most powerful and vibrant people-of-color-led intersectional movements for justice, and false charges of antisemitism are being used by our government, by Christian Zionist leaders in America and, sadly, some leaders in our own community to harm this movement.
So we are very concerned that false claims of anti-Semitism are hurting the left right now, and we need to be strengthening the left. So it’s even more important for us to build these genuinely left-wing, progressive Jewish spaces that are on the right side of history.
History is heating up right now, and we’re not sure what the future holds in America. We need to get on the right side of the barricades, and to get as much of our community on the right side of the barricades as possible.
I also think radical Jews and radical communities have a lot to offer the left around its analysis of anti-Semitism, because there are times when anti-Semitism does appear on the left, and other times when the left simply lacks an understanding of what anti-Semitism is and how it functions.
I think it’s up to us as Jewish allies on the left who have built close relationships and who show up for struggle–it’s up to us to lovingly call in our allies and do education around anti-Semitism, in the context of our deep relationships, and to develop a progressive movement that can passionately fight against anti-Semitism alongside all forms of oppression.
Here’s a nightmare fantasy of mine. Before long, mainstream Democrat-voting American Jews won’t be afraid to talk about the occupation. Quite the contrary- they’ll insist at social gatherings that they’ve been against it all along; they’ll congratulate themselves for cursing Bibi and Trump; ‘our Israel’, they’ll tell each other, ‘would never do the terrible things Bibi’s Israel is doing today’. How great they will feel about themselves, when their institutions can finally display with pride- We stand against the occupation!
Only it will be 50 years too late- nay, 25 years too late. Their collective voices could have been very useful during the Oslo Accords, but today, Bibi’s Israel doesn’t need liberal American Jews- it finds its solid base of support in the right-wing Orthodox, and the evangelical Christian Right. The occupation is permanent. Reform movement leader Rick Jacobs will wear an ‘I Stand Against the Occupation’ pin when he gets arrested at the Kotel with Women of the Wall- but will it matter?
American Jews will be able to congratulate themselves en masse for opposing occupation precisely when that gesture is politically irrelevant. It will soothe their consciences, and absolve them of historical responsibility for a situation they couldn’t face, and can no longer influence. And lord knows, they still won’t talk about the Nakba and Palestinian right of return.
Cringy NYT op-eds like this pave the way towards that reality. In 2018, let’s challenge ourselves and our communities to broaden the discourse, play to win, face reality and not settle for less.