Sunday, September 30, 2018

Why Left Anti-Semitism?

Below is the written version of the talk I gave at SF Hillel earlier today. They invited me to speak on the subject of left anti-Semitism after reading my article on Open Hillel's intervention in the litigation over antisemitism at San Francisco State University. I asked if I could specifically speak on the question "Why Left Anti-Semitism?", and this was the result (I've added some hyperlinks where useful for context).

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I was invited here to talk about “left anti-Semitism.” This makes sense: It is a topic I’ve written about frequently, including in the context of the ongoing controversies at S.F. State and at Berkeley. So it’s an issue that I’m comfortable talking about and which I feel is important to talk about.

But on another level, some might ask: why left anti-Semitism? Why, right now, should that be our specific focus?

I have an answer to that question, and I’ll get to it in a few moments. But it is a valid question to ask—for a variety of reasons, but I’ll lead with the one that casts the largest shadow:

In the United States, in 2018, the anti-Semitism most likely to put a bullet in my brain comes from the right.

It sometimes seems as if that obvious yet terrifying truth is overlooked. We are living in an America and a world seeing a surge—and mainstreaming—of right-wing antisemitism the likes of which haven’t been seen in my lifetime. A White Supremacist stabbed to death a gay Jewish college student in southern California. A man carves swastikas into his rifle and then killed 17 people at a Florida high school that is 40% Jewish. Printers at UC-Berkeley have been hacked into to spit out Nazi iconography; just one of a flurry of similar incidents occurring at colleges across the country.

By contrast, as of today, the death toll attributable to intersectional feminists remains firmly at zero. So why left anti-Semitism?

And it’s not just violent extremists. Right-wing anti-Semites are alarmingly mainstream. Many of you know of the American Nazi who’s running for Congress as a Republican in Illinois’ 3rd congressional district—perhaps that one can be excused, since his primary was uncontested in a deep blue district. But it’s harder to overlook Steve King, the Congressman from Iowa whose openly White supremacist rhetoric (“we can’t restore our civilization with someone else’s babies”; “demographics are our destiny”) is paired with regular and unapologetically retweets of Nazis and other right-wing extremists. Or Steve West, who thinks “Hitler was right” and who just won a contested GOP primary for a Missouri state house seat. Or Jim Hagedorn, who said Joe Lieberman voted for the Iraq war because he’s Jewish—he’s favored to win the race in Minnesota’s swing 1st district, which happens to be the one where my wife grew up and my in-laws still live. These things may feel distant for those of us in the Bay Area—but they’re not so distant for all of us.

So why left anti-Semitism? That question invites another: What is the relationship between institutional Jewry and the left?

The other day, I was contacted by a Jewish media professional hawking a new service providing “talking points” on matters of anti-Semitism and Israel. He told me that I “should consider them a consensus view across an extensive spectrum of North America’s Jewish community.” Of the groups he listed as participating in the project, not a single one represented the Jewish left. And I’m not talking about Jewish Voice for Peace—I’m talking about the Zionist left: J Street, Ameinu, Third Narrative, Americans for Peace Now, Partners for Progressive Israel—none were there (also noteworthy, none of the groups were associated with the non-European or non-Ashkenazi Jewish community either). I had to tell this guy that the “spectrum” of American Jewish life does not extend from the right all the way to the center. But too often, that’s been the reality—and it’s a reality that I shouldn’t have to say is deeply unrepresentative of the demographics of the actual American Jewish community (much less the young community Hillel serves on campus). Some would suggest that it is this non-representativeness that is the real answer to the question “why left anti-Semitism?”

At this point, the question “why left anti-Semitism” starts to overlap with another truth which the institutional Jewish community needs to face: Too often, in our community, we police the left to the letter while letting the right run wild.

Sometimes that policing is quite literal: the Forward broke the story the other day that the Israel on Campus Coalition, in partnership with Hillel, had been conducting clandestine surveillance of left-wing Jews on campus—an allegation which, if true, would represent an appalling betrayal of trust and abdication of mission. But it runs deeper than that. In Hillel we see it in the application of the standards of partnership. These standards are meant to establish a minimum baseline of civil and equitable principles that all Hillel community members are expected to follow. And in the course of their implementation, there have been countless cases of tension with left-wing students being judged and scrutinized and checked to make sure they don’t step a toe over the line. But the one time that a Hillel chapter even contemplated applying its standards of partnership to a right-wing speaker, last year at Princeton—the national organization couldn’t issue an apology fast enough. The message was evident: these rules bound the left. They don’t apply to the right.

It’s not just Hillel either. In our Jewish world, a commitment to the two-state solution is an absolute redline for the left—but nobody seems to mind the Zionist Organization of America openly flouting it on the right. In our Jewish world, it is absolutely beyond the pale to ever compare Jews or Jewish entities to Nazis or Nazi collaborators—unless you’re our ambassador to Israel. Then the President of the ADL will, on national television, dismiss it as a “stray comment” that it wasn’t his “job” to challenge.

And on that I have to say: many young Jews in the Bay Area have had the experience of being compared to Nazis because we stake out a left-Zionist position on campuses and in communities where even that is considered an unforgivable sin. We’ve nonetheless dug in our heels and stood our ground in defense of an Israel that is secure and democratic, a homeland for Jews and a state where all citizens are equals. And so it is impossible to overstate the sense of betrayal, when the nominee for the highest ranking American official in Israel was one who had said we were “worse than Kapos”, that the President of the ADL went on national television and said that it wasn’t any of his business. He sold us out. And each and every one of us knew that if it some left-wing adjunct professor of anthropology had called certain young Jews “worse than Kapos”, the ADL would have been all over it. But since it came from right, and targeted the left, it got a pass.

The message young liberal Jews have consistently gotten from our own community is that if we come under attack from a right-wing source with even a modicum of political influence, we’re on our own. And it hurts. It hurts to know, from repeated experience, that our community doesn’t have our backs. When accounting for the rise of groups like Open Hillel and IfNotNow (to say nothing of JVP), I don’t think mainstream Jewish organizations have internalized or reckoned with just how wounded, how abandoned, the community of young progressive Jews feels by those who supposedly represent them.

To be clear: we should support the two-state solution, and push back against those too eager to dispense with it. We should say Nazi comparisons are beyond the pale, and I agree with the IHRA antisemitism definition in thinking that such rhetoric is per se antisemitic. And I’m okay with Hillel having standards of partnership, to ensure community members engage equitably and respectfully with one another. But these principles and standards cannot cut one way. And too often, they do, and young liberal Jews notice. And so, in this moment, they might also ask “why left anti-Semitism”, and wonder if focusing on that, right now, is part of this same misbegotten pattern.

So why left anti-Semitism? I promised I had an answer to that question—and I should hope so, since as I mentioned I’ve devoted a considerably part of my career as a scholar and writer to discussing it—and I do have an answer. And that answer is just this:

For many us—for most of us (of course not all of us)—the left is our home. This is where our commitments lie, this is where we make our political stands. The liberal, progressive community is our community, is our family, and of course it is reasonable for us to pay extra attention and exhibit extra concern for what is going on in our own house. Yes, it’s true that anti-Semitic violence in the United States emanates predominantly from the political right. But I’m not a part of the political right, and I harbor no expectations out of the political right. The anti-Semitism that obstructs me from participating in causes, or joining movements, or fighting battles that are very much my own is far more likely to stem from the political left.

Framed in this way, the question “why left anti-Semitism” almost looks insulting. It treats Jews as if we have no stake in the left, as if it was not ours. But Jews do not come to the left as strangers. We have roots here, we have commitments here, and we have as much right as anyone else to lay claim to being part of the left. When people express befuddlement (or worse, rage) at Jews caring so much about left anti-Semitism, they implicitly deny our standing as insiders to that political community.

Progressive Jews often stand in a posture of perpetual probation—always under suspicion, always under review, always viewed as a potential Fifth Column such that if we do raise objections, it is not read as a family member laying claim to the narrative of their own community, but as a saboteur who has revealed themselves as one of the enemy all along. And so left anti-Semitism always comes with a double dose of betrayal: the first being turned upon by those we thought were our friends, the second being the realization that the betrayers don’t even recognize it as a betrayal—it never occurred to them that we were part of their group—that we were friends—to begin with.

So there’s my answer to “why left anti-Semitism”: it’s because Jews are part of the left, and we have every entitlement to care about the future of our own political community in which many of us have invested so much. Now you’ll notice that this is a contingent observation: it applies to those Jews who are part of the left, and while most Jews in America broadly identify as left-of-center, not all do. And that’s fine! Jews come in all political shapes and sizes, and while most are some form of Zionist and some form of left-of-center, deviation from that norm—whether it comes in the form of being a far-left anti-Zionist or a right-wing Trump backer—should not in any way be thought to detract from one’s Jewishness.

But without prejudice to those who break from the mold, I address the Jewish majority—broadly left-of-center, broadly Zionist. And the basic idea here is one that Rabbi Angela Buchdahl ably expressed in her Rosh Hashanah sermon just a few weeks ago: there is a special role in fighting anti-Semitism on your side. Among your allies. Those on the left do and should legitimately pay special care to anti-Semitism in their own ranks. And since most Jews are, broadly speaking, “on the left”, most Jews have every right to be especially concerned with anti-Semitism on the left, among our allies.

Yet here too, there is something that needs to be said about “allies”. To lay claim to the legitimizing power of fighting anti-Semitism “among your allies”, you actually have to be an ally. We can’t keep trotting out who marched with Martin Luther King in the 1960s—a chestnut which, as one prominent African-American Jewish activist observed, is starting to border on "Party of Lincoln" territory. If our best examples of participating in progressive social movements came a half-century ago, that’s a problem. We have to actually be in the room, putting in the work, today.

But if it is true that Jewish groups have more work to be done to be allies, it’s also the case that Jewish non-presence “in the room” is not purely attributable to apathy or closet conservatism. It also stems from conscious strategies of exclusion; indeed, it is a key feature of left anti-Semitism that it tries to lock Jews out of the room. It’s true that some Jews were late to join up with the Black Lives Matter movement. It’s also true that one of the earliest supporters of that movement, Rabbi Susan Talve, faced a concerted push from groups like Jewish Voice for Peace to muscle her out of the room—under the repulsive hashtag #RealTerrorist no less [Update: On further research, this needs some clarification. I'd say it is fair to characterize JVP as part of the movement trying to exclude Rabbi Talve, but they did not use the #RealTerrorist hashtag. They did, however, very pointedly decline to take a position on that hashtag -- saying it was "not a conversation we wish to have".].

The paradox of left anti-Semitism is that it indicts Jews for allegedly not showing up, and then pulls out all the stops in order to prevent Jews from showing up. It condemns Jews for not joining the struggle, and then it condemns Jews for asserting that the struggle is ours.

This is no accident. Decisions are made by, and authority is vested in, the people in the room. We’ve seen so many cases—at the Chicago Dyke March, at the Creating Change LGBT conference, at a civil rights fair here at S.F. State, in academic and cultural institutions across the world—of trying to lock Jews (or, at least, the “bad Jews”, which ends up covering most Jews) out of the room. The fact of the exclusion hurts, but it is not just sadism at work here. When groups mobilize to try to lock other Jews out, there are also trying to diminish the authority of those Jews to register claims demanding collective attention. When Jews—or the wrong Jews, the non-hand-picked Jews—aren’t present, then other voices can fill the gap to talk about Jews without listening to Jews. British sociologist David Hirsh has worried that a whole generation of leftists are being taught that Jews are the enemy, outside the community of the good. This project demands that Jews not be admitted into the spaces and organization and communities within which we could performatively contest that label, and instead take on the role of a friend. It is no wonder that our presence is resisted so.

So much anti-Semitism—left and right—is about degrading the authority and credibility of Jews to make claims. The most straightforward instances are also the most familiar: the persistent drumbeat that when Jews speak we’re part of a cabal, or a conspiracy, or an Israeli plot; that we’re lying, or deluded, or acting in bad faith; that we’re Hasbara shills or “crying anti-Semitism”; that we’re pawns of Soros or only interested in shielding Israel from all criticism. Each of these are examples of anti-Semitism taking on an epistemic dimension—it undermines Jews as witnesses and testifiers, as even candidates to possess knowledge that others might have a duty to heed. And the effort to exclude Jews and Jewish groups from progressive organizations and movements is part of this same dynamic. Directly, it impedes Jewish ability to speak for ourselves and to participate in conversations and causes we have very real stakes in. Indirectly, it sabotages our standing as members of our community—writing us out of spaces and places that are very much ours, and recasting us as strangers, enemies, and saboteurs.

The temptation, sometimes, is to walk away. But this isn’t really an option. For starters, where would we go? If the left is our home, then I paraphrase Du Bois: “I would not leave it if I could, I could not leave it if I would.” The right has no real place for us—even in the left’s worst moments, like we’re seeing now in the UK, the choice remains the Labour that snuggles up to Hamas versus the Tories who cozy up to Orban. More often, the choice is between a Trump and a Clinton, and if someone is making that decision by reference to left anti-Semitism, the only possible response is “why?”

In any event, the whole point of that opening soliloquy was that it is not objective danger but rather our familial and ideological bonds to the left that makes its iterations of anti-Semitism sting so badly—a woundedness that can only come from genuine attachment. The right isn’t a home for Jews for the same reason it’s never been a home for the Jews—and it is liable to get worse before it gets better.

But it’s also wrong to walk away because it plays directly into the hands of the anti-Semites seeking to drive us out. If they want to purge the Jews, why should we do their work for them? Why should we cede ground and space that we have every right to stand upon? Make them earn their inches.

“We are here and this is ours”—that was the rallying cry of Loolwa Khazzoom, an Iraqi-American Jewish feminist who organized the first anthology of Middle Eastern Jewish women writers. It also works as a rallying cry for the left-of-center Jewish majority when challenged as to why we care about left anti-Semitism. We care because we are here on the left, and we care because the left is ours as much as anyone else’s. And we shouldn't bow to anybody on either score.

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