Monday, July 12, 2021

Are Progressives Being Excluded from the Anti-Antisemitism Movement?

The majority of the commentary on the "No Fear" rally against antisemitism -- my own included -- has focused on the presence/absence of progressive Jews from the event, and the degree to which the event was or wasn't a welcoming space for progressive Jews who are passionate about fighting antisemitism.  My commentary has generally taken the view that progressive Jews should have shown up, and critiqued modes of thinking that basically guarantee that our presence will be viewed as a loss or sacrifice. That said, clearly there is purchase to the concerns that events like the No Fear rally are not welcoming spaces for progressive Jews who do not want to check either identity at the door. Ron Kampeas' coverage of the rally provides some striking examples. These include:

  • A Biden official facing jeers by Trumpist attendees who claimed the election was stolen and that the Biden admin was funding terrorists. Those persons were apparently especially furious when it was noted that Biden made the decision to run for President after watching the White Supremacist rally in Charlottesville and Donald Trump's tepidly ambiguous reaction to it.
  • Loud boos at the mention of Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, dwarfing the more muted reaction to Marjorie Taylor Green.
  • A couple who were accosted by a fellow attendee "in a Kahane shirt" who told them that their "No to occupation, No to antisemitism" sign meant that they should be standing with the Netorei Karta (the rally organizers had insisted that Kahanists would not be welcome at the rally).
To that we might add the (successful) efforts by conservatives to remove language suggesting J Street would be welcome, and the ambivalent on-again-off-again status of an "inclusivity" message declaring  that the rally would not tolerate "expressions of racism, Islamophobia, misogyny, classism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia or any other hate," which drew the ire of right-wing participants. All of these together surely can be said to create a manifestly hostile environment for a progressive Jew who very much cares about fighting antisemitism, but finds herself clearly unwelcome when she tries to join the space.

So, it is perhaps high time to ask: are progressives (especially progressive Jews) being squeezed out of Jewish anti-antisemitism movements?

The question is deliberately framed as a mirror to the far-more commonly investigated question: "Are Jews being excluded from the progressive movement?" There, too, we have a bevy of examples of Jews who try to show up in progressive movements and are subjected to a host of hostile responses -- sometimes microaggressions, sometimes very macroaggressions -- that are clear in signaling to them "you are not welcome".

Now, in both cases, it is possible to traverse the question by denying the "excluded" persons have any business in the object movements to begin with. The Jews who complain about being locked out of the progressive movement are not, we're told, actually progressive; the progressives who express discomfort about how inclusive the anti-antisemitism movement is do not, it is said, actually care much about antisemitism -- and so it is perfectly natural and appropriate that they aren't welcomed with open arms. The smarmy response to Jews who say they're uncomfortable in progressive spaces is to tell them their discomfort proves they aren't really progressive (who but a reactionary would be uncomfortable in a progressive space); the smarmy response to progressives who say they're uncomfortable at an antisemitism rally is to declare that their discomfort proves they don't care about antisemitism (who but an antisemite would be uncomfortable at a rally against antisemitism?).

But while I don't deny that there are persons who fit that critique, in both cases we would do better to accept in principle that the people claiming exclusion are genuine in their desire to be included, and that it is a problem insofar as they do not feel included. The Jews who seek inclusion in progressive spaces and find it wanting are not Fifth Column infiltrators; the Jews who want to stand up against antisemitism but feel as if their presence is undesired are not self-hating bigotry apologists. Accepting that, we can start to think about what progressive spaces are doing wrong if (many) Jews who are very much progressive don't feel included there, and likewise what anti-antisemitism events are doing wrong if (many) progressives who are very much committed to fighting antisemitism don't feel welcome there.

One thing I have noticed moving around Jewish spaces is that, when they think about big-tent inclusivity, they almost always mean for that to be inclusive of more conservative Jews. It is taken for granted that progressive Jews are already included as much as they need to be -- it is conservatives who need to be given sops and accommodations to ensure that they feel welcome. At one level, I understand why this is -- most Jews, and most Jewish professionals, are Democrats, so it seems weird to them that the events and structures they create could be inadequate for other persons who like them are left-of-center. In classic "a liberal is someone who won't take his own side in an argument" fashion, they assume that the only accommodations that need to be made are ones for the Jewish right, and that "accommodations" for the Jewish left are not actually about expanding the tent but rather are self-serving entrenchments of the already-prevailing orthodoxy. The ironic result is that Jewish progressive values are under-represented in Jewish communal programming in large part because they are assumed to be so omnipresent that they needn't be made explicit, and the result often is that many Jewish progressives do not see themselves as included in these spaces.

For example, I was at the conference of an anti-BDS group a few years where the overall tenor was very much standard-issue middle of the road Jewish content. Pro-Israel, nominally pro-two states, mentions of the occupation but without any detail, not wild about Bibi but overwhelmingly placing the blame for the current situation on Palestinian actors. Towards the end of the event, one person stood up and chided the conference organizers for operating under the assumption that "everyone here is a liberal". He said that there may be (likely are) people in attendance who do not support a Palestinian state, who do not think "Judea and Samaria" are occupied, who do not oppose the settlement project, and such persons were treated as invisible by the tacit assumption that everybody in the room held liberal views.

The conference organizers were clearly chagrined at their failure to be inclusive. But when I heard this critique, it triggered two thoughts. Thought number one is that while I had no problem with conservatives attending this conference, there was no foul in a Jewish-adjacent organization articulating value positions that are overwhelmingly popular among most Jews. If that makes them "uncomfortable", so be it. Thought number two was that the objector -- and the apologetic conference organizers -- clearly could not fathom that there might be persons who also felt uncomfortable with the tenor of the conference from the left. The rah-rah Zionism, the overwhelming emphasis on Palestinian culpability, the failure to significantly mention violations of academic freedom targeting Palestinian or pro-Palestinian persons -- there are plenty of persons (including plenty of BDS opponents!) who would've found the tone of the conference more than a bit squirmy. Now, to be sure, my response to them would be in large part identical to my response to the squeamish conservatives -- "so be it". There is no foul in a conference primarily made up of Jews having a tone that aligns with the views of most Jews. But it was noteworthy that while everyone immediately understood the "failure" of being inclusive towards the right, the idea that a Jewish conference might fail in being inclusive towards the left was unfathomable.

It's time to start fathoming. Identifying the problem leaves plenty of space for debating how to resolve it -- my posts above, for instance, advocate Jewish progressives adopting a kick-the-door-down mentality where they show up and change the tenor by being there and being vocal (this, incidentally, is also the advice one sometimes sees for how to resolve Jewish exclusion from progressive spaces -- show up, do the work, and make your presence known, and the tenor will change). Of course, this advice falters when the groups try to show up and find the doors locked, and I think there are plenty of good arguments suggesting additional tactics and accommodations are necessary. The ongoing issue where liberal Jews are policed to the letter while conservative counterparts are allowed to run wild is an obvious arena where changes must be made.

But the fact is, right now there are many Jews who are serious and committed to the fight against antisemitism for whom events like the No Fear rally are not welcoming spaces -- when they show up, they're told they're fake Jews, they're self-hating, they're anti-Zionists, they have blood on their hands, they are the enemy. That is a form of exclusion -- as toxic as when Jews try to attend a progressive rally and are told they are baby-killers, they are monsters, they are imperialists, they are settlers. It is dangerous, and we need to start thinking seriously about how to end it.

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