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Competing Panels on Antisemitism

By TTN Blog

Our TTN colleague, Karla Goldman, is the Sol Drachler Professor of Social Work and Professor of Judaic Studies at the University of Michigan where she directs the Jewish Communal Leadership Program.  She reported on a controversial panel discussion organized by the Jewish Voice for Peace, an officially anti-Zionist organization, in conjunction with a pro-Zionist online presentation that she viewed the following day.  The original draft of her article, “Dismantling Anti(-S)emitism: Dueling Panels,” published in the Feb. 2021 issue of Washtenaw Jewish News  (p. 7), included a riff on how the two programs conflicted on spelling the A word.  What follows is a somewhat modified version: 

On December 15, 2020, the Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) offered a Zoom panel, “Dismantling Antisemitism, Winning Justice.” If the goal was to provoke, this was effectively realized when the Tel Aviv Institute and the Combat Anti-Semitism Movement announced their own event for the following day with an almost identical title, “Dismantling Anti-Semitism: Jews Talk Justice.” 

Those outraged by the JVP event pointed to the participation of Rashida Tlaib, a U.S. Congresswoman representing part of Detroit, and Temple University scholar and activist Marc Lamont Hill. Both Rep. Tlaib and Prof. Hill are known in the Jewish community for anti-Israel stances [Tlaib favors a one-state solution in place of the current State of Israel].  Other than the moderator, Rabbi Alissa Wise of JVP, the only Jewish panelist was Peter Beinart, who ten years ago called attention to the inherent contradiction between the liberal values of most American Jews and the oppressive policies toward Palestinians practiced by the Israeli government that many of them support.  Beinart, who still describes himself as a Zionist, has invited additional recent opprobrium by announcing that he no longer believes in a two-state solution to the conflict.  

The JVP event offered thoughtful and sincere engagement with the depth of antisemitism while also illustrating the pitfalls of eliding essential elements of the conversation.  Although the Tel Aviv Institute event started as a heavy-handed attempt to negate the JVP discussion, it ultimately surfaced a meaningful conversation that acknowledged the impossibility of reducing antisemitism to a narrow set of political needs. 

The participants in the JVP discussion are known to many in the Jewish community chiefly for their heavy critique of Israeli policies toward Palestinians living under Israeli occupation. Marc Lamont Hill became known in the Jewish community two years ago when he advocated for a free Palestine “from the river to the sea” before a United Nations committee. This phrase, often interpreted as a call for the elimination of Israel, earned him dismissal from his role as a commentator on CNN.  Representative Tlaib, the daughter of Palestinian immigrants, has been targeted by President Trump and others for her progressive views and for her critique of Israeli policies toward Palestinians.  Historian Barbara Ransby (at the University of Illinois-Chicago) is less radioactive in the Jewish community, but has asserted her support of BDS (Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions) against Israel.

Pre-panel outrage focused on the spectacle of individuals labeled by many as antisemitic daring to participate in a panel on “Dismantling Antisemitism.”  As Peter Beinart movingly pointed out, however, it’s likely that if many among the 900+  who zoomed into the JVP panel were looking to gather evidence for the Jew-hatred of the participants, they would have been disappointed. Instead, they witnessed a thoughtful discussion, devoid of rancor, that fully acknowledged the pain of antisemitism and the damage it caused to Jews and progressive causes as a whole. Each speaker shared personal narratives of the moment when it became clear to them that antisemitism was inextricably woven into the varied oppressions that set out to suppress and divide victims of societal prejudice and oppression.  

The engagement of the speakers, their eschewal of prefab talking points, and their presence in the face of outraged demands for their silence  — as well as the palpable presence of the hundreds of attendees in their Zoom squares — made the event feel simultaneously momentous, raw and strangely consoling. 

Rabbi Wise began the discussion by describing how she had come to reject the lesson she had grown up learning that Jews were alone in the world and could not rely on the support of other marginalized groups. Other speakers drew upon this premise to share a precept familiar in social justice circles that every oppressed group’s liberation is bound up in the collective liberation of all.  Thus, for instance, one can’t truly fight the targeting of Jews if one accepts the oppression of Palestinians.  

The difficulty with the panel was not in its insistence that the most malevolent and violent manifestations of antisemitism are to be found on the right, but rather its avoidance of how anti-Zionism on the left often echoes and utilizes classic antisemitic tropes that single out Israel for its conduct in ways rarely applied with such vehemence to other countries.  Without acknowledging the intense vulnerability that many Jews feel around anti-Zionism and the way it deploys antisemitic tropes, it was somewhat disingenuous to claim that they were honestly addressing the fears that antisemitism raises in the Jewish community.

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When it came to the Tel Aviv Institute/Combat Anti-Semitism event the following day, things started out in a clearly reactive mode.  Israeli TV anchor, Natasha Kirtchuk offered an implicit denigration of the previous night’s event as she welcomed viewers to a program that would  “get the facts straight and take control of our history.”  

The presentation cycled quickly through multiple voices establishing the omnipresent and ever-increasing threat of anti-Semitism from swastika graffiti to attacks on ultra-orthodox Jews in Monsey and Jersey City. A U.S. special envoy on anti-Semitism, born in Iran, decried assertions that Israel reflected an effort by Jews with white privilege to “oppress brown people” and rapturously described a Chanukah celebration she attended in Dubai after the establishment of diplomatic relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates. She referenced the UAE as a true ally for Jews, as opposed to those on the far left. A tattoo artist who recruits global artists to transform scars of terrorism into artistic creations denounced “fake progressives hosting seminars without Jews about anti-Semitism.” Likewise, Anila Ali, introduced as an American Muslim ally, asserted the right of Jews to “to define anti-Semitism” as opposed to a “sham of an anti-Semitism panel” that only called out white nationalists and ignored left wing anti-Semitism. 

After hearing from Natan Sharansky and a video depicting the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of anti-Semitism, which highlights an equation of anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism, the program moved toward a more deliberative discussion by a panel dominated by women of varied descents and hues. They were tasked with representing the diversity of Jewish identities and showing that Zionism does not have to conflict with a commitment to social justice. 

The panel was clearly chosen to contest the idea that Jews and Zionism are defined by white privilege. Mahrinah Shije was introduced as a native American indigenous advocate and Sephardic Jew; Arizona state Rep. Alma Hernandez as “the first Mexican-American Jew to win elected office;” Ashager Araro as a “prominent Ethiopian Israeli anti-racism activists;” and Rabbi Sandra Lawson as the “first openly gay black rabbi.” Along with political commentator Hen Mazzig, a gay Israeli of North African descent, who sat alongside the moderator addressing the video wall of diverse women, this group turned out to be willing to push back against some of the rigid framing of the event.  

The moderator opened the discussion by asking Mazzig whether “anti-Semitism has become a problem in popular social justice movements and the progressive movement as a whole?” He agreed that it “has become a problem,” but that the “deadliest” anti-Semitism came from  white nationalists on the right. Similarly, when asked “Why do you think that anti-Semitism has become a problem in social justice movements in the progressive movement as a whole?”, Rabbi Sandra Lawton deflected the questions, asserting  that anti-Semitism is “not a left problem, not a right problem” but endemic to American and Christian culture overall.   

Importantly, the panelists did call out ways in which many Jews feel excluded from the progressive left because of commitments to Israel, including the right to self-determination, that went unaddressed during the JVP forum.  At the same time, Hen Mazzig was able to acknowledge, albeit somewhat hesitatingly, the concern at the center of the JVP discussion: “there is a real issue, there is a conflict, there are people aspiring for self-determination. We have a conflict that is unsolved, and this needs to be solved, …. We can’t ignore the Palestinians, and [I] hope that will be solved.” 

This acknowledgement wasn’t much in a 90-minute webinar, but it did something essential. If those concerned about anti(-S)emitism want to move beyond fighting about which form is worst and who gets to define it (and how to spell it), it is imperative that they recognize the intense concerns and vulnerabilities that lay at the heart of these opposing sessions. 

The presentations on December 15 and 16 may not be the best introduction to the nature of anti(-S)emitism available, but they opened a fascinating window on the difficulty of discourse around this issue without using it to spear either the right or the left.  

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