Politics

The Challenge for Progressive Jews

There shouldn’t be any contradiction between opposing Israeli policy and condemning antisemitism.

Progressive members of Brooklyn's Jewish community hold a rally to protest Israel's continued occupation of Palestine and what they claim to be its zionist policies of apartheid on May 21 in Brooklyn, New York.
Progressive members of Brooklyn’s Jewish community hold a rally to protest Israel’s continued occupation of Palestine and what they claim to be its Zionist policies of apartheid on May 21. Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images

Perhaps you saw the letter. The one in which 175 Jewish studies and Israel studies scholars wrote, “we condemn the state violence that the Israeli government and its security forces have been carrying out in Gaza.” In the same letter, they wrote, “We also denounce expressions of antisemitism or Islamophobia in connection with ongoing events in Israel/Palestine.”

Or perhaps you read the Instagram post by the account “Progressive Jews,” backing Palestinian rights and safety, freedom and liberation, but also urging followers to speak out against antisemitism.

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Or perhaps you read about the millennial Jewish staffers on Capitol Hill who are working criticism of Israeli government policy into their day jobs, pushing back against conflation of criticism of the Israeli government with antisemitism.

Or perhaps you saw statements like the ones put out by T’ruah, a rabbinic human rights group, which condemned violence by Israeli police, denounced “aiming missiles at civilians,” and also reminded anyone reading that attacking Jewish people is antisemitic and wrong.

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Perhaps, in other words, you were aware that there are progressive Jews who both condemn the Israeli military and government’s treatment of Palestinians while also speaking out against antisemitism. To many, it might seem obvious that one can be both opposed to Israel and concerned about rising antisemitism. But to others, it is not. That is true for opponents of Israel who have taken it upon themselves to vandalize synagogues and a Jewish preschool. But so, too, is it true that some—including some Jews and Jewish institutions—conflate criticizing Israel with criticizing Jews.

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For example, the Anti-Defamation League, which has been rightly ringing alarm bells about rising antisemitism and is participating in a rally against antisemitism Thursday, has also counted denunciations of Zionism in its tracker of antisemitic incidents. But how to define antisemitism is a debate for this very reason: American Jews themselves disagree over the extent to which criticism of Israel and Israel as a Jewish state is inherently antisemitic. There are Palestinian rights activists and anti-Zionist Jews and Zionist Jews who believe that defining antisemitism so as to include anti-Zionism is an attempt to create a chilling effect on speech criticizing Israel. And it isn’t only a matter of competing definitions; for American Jews, to speak out against Israel can be to have one’s own Jewishness challenged. So many pieces like and including the one you’re reading now include paragraphs assuring readers that Jews who criticize Israel are indeed proud Jews. Those paragraphs are there for a reason.

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That reason is that a persistent feature of American discourse around Israel focuses on whether or how progressive Jews can simultaneously condemn antisemitism while vocally opposing Israeli abuses in the conflict. The two goals are often presented as being in tension, when they are in fact, to progressive Jews, in concert. In other words, while there shouldn’t be a tension between being proudly Jewish and being critical of Israel, or between decrying rising antisemitism as well as the occupation, and while an increasing number of American Jews hold these views, it’s still contested ground, a position that is subjected to bad faith arguments. Those arguments should be addressed directly.

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I will note here that the fighting, killing, and dying in Israel-Palestine is not about American Jews, who are not the primary victims in any of this. However, reports of antisemitic violence in the U.S. and Europe are up in recent weeks, with reports of synagogues being attacked in Illinois and Arizona and Jews being followed and taunted with antisemitic slurs, and a kosher pizza shop being vandalized in New York City, and brass squares commemorating Jewish victims of the Nazis being burned in Berlin. Jews, including American Jews, of all political stripes are allowed to feel scared and sad and mad about that and to say that they feel that way.

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Relatedly, a political solution between Israelis and Palestinians will not and should not be dictated by progressive American Jews thousands of miles away. However, given the central role that Israel plays in American Jewish schools, summer camps, and religious and political institutions, and given that the United States provides significant military aid and diplomatic support to Israel, it is not unreasonable for American Jews, including progressive ones, to feel moved to offer their opinions on the conflict.

There is—of course—historical context to consider. The role that Israel plays in the American Jewish imagination is at once large and varied, and, certainly, from the 1960s on, it has figured prominently in American Jewish life. (For decades before that, as Jonathan Sarna writes in American Judaism, there was also support for Israel, but it was more muted). Israel has, over time, become increasingly important for certain mainstream American Jewish institutions.

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Consider, for example, what it meant, and means, to the American Jewish Committee. Originally, the American Jewish Committee was anti-Zionist, fearing that the specter of dual loyalty would damage the position and even safety of American Jews. By 1960, as Daniel Gordis recounts in We Stand Divided: The Rift Between American Jews and Israel, the AJC had come to drop its opposition to Zionism. Nevertheless, after Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann was captured by the Mossad in Argentina, former AJC president Joseph Proskauer voiced his opposition to trying Eichmann in Israel, both because he did not want Israel to present as speaking for the world’s Jews and because he did not believe that Eichmann’s crimes were only against Jews.

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Today, the AJC is a staunch defender of Israel; on its homepage, AJC describes itself as, “Advocating for the Jewish people and Israel.”

But if certain mainstream American Jewish institutions moved in a particular direction, the same is not necessarily true of all or even most American Jews themselves. In 2014, the Times of Israel ran an article under the headline, “In Wake of War, Leftist ‘Self-Hating Jews’ Find a Voice” on unaffiliated Jews flocking to Jewish Voices for Peace, an anti-Zionist activist group founded in the 1990s; also in 2014, IfNotNow launched, also as a response to the Gaza war and the occupation. In 2018 the Times of Israel ran another piece, this time on progressive millennial Jews returning to their Jewish roots as a response to Trump and the rise of the alt-right and antisemitism. This Jewish identity included, at least for some, becoming more engaged in the fight for Palestinian rights.

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I could here explain that they are not alone, and that this reflects a generational shift and political change more broadly. I could note that the 2020 Pew report on American Jews shows that young Jews are less staunchly opposed to the boycott, divestment, sanctions movement (though more still oppose it than support it), or that they feel less connected to Israel than their older counterparts, even while perceiving heightened antisemitism, or that the Trump years saw American Jewish approval of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu drop.

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But values are not a popularity contest, so I will instead say that American Jews, like literally any other group, are not a monolith, and some are progressive, and that their progressive values dictate opposition both to Israeli policy and to antisemitism.

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And it’s not because they’re “self-hating” or “antisemites,” as Alan Dershowitz said about Bernie Sanders (a Jewish senator who spent time in his youth on a kibbutz). Neither is it because they’re trying to sit at the right lunch table with the cool kids. It’s because they’re both Jewish and progressive.

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Are Israel and Jewishness often conflated? Yes. Do some people who critique Israel make antisemitic remarks? Sure (though we could also note that the same could be said of some people who purport to stand with Israel). Have some taken Israeli government policy and mass protests against it as an excuse to attack random Jews and Jewish houses of worship and Jewish shops? It certainly seems that way. Are there people in this world who are focused on Israel, as opposed to any other country, because, as some have suggested, they hate Jews specifically? It could be. But that is about them, the antisemites, not about the call for Palestinian rights, and not about progressive Jews, for whom speaking out against the military or government or police or practices of another country—even, yes, the only Jewish country—is perfectly consistent with speaking out against antisemitism. Both are about creating a future in which everyone is afforded dignity.

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As Anshel Pfeffer wrote in Haaretz, “Our tradition is a smorgasbord from which you can pick and choose and reinterpret at will. The rabbis have been doing that for 3,000 years, and so can you.” Or, as the late socialist literary critic Irving Howe put it, “With enough wrenching, one could find ‘ancestors’ in the Jewish past for almost any position.”

But does one really need to wrench to see why progressive Jews do not think it’s right for 248 Palestinian civilians and 12 Israeli civilians to be dead, or for people to be kicked out of the homes their families have lived in for years? Surely, there is Jewish history and learning and teaching that says that one can and should speak out against that. Jewish history and tradition are large and varied, too, and one can pull on this strand or that to create the picture of Jewishness one wishes to see.

Theirs is not, in other words, the only Jewish way, or the most Jewish way. But it is a Jewish way. And a progressive way. And there is no inherent contradiction—indeed, there can be an inherent harmony—in that.

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