Critique of Panel on Antisemitism

The Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA) opened its first full day on Feb. 9 with a session called “Leveraging Community Relations to Fight Antisemitism” — a panel consisting of Deborah Lipstadt (author most recently of Antisemitism Here and Now and a professor of Holocaust Studies at Emory University), Dove Kent (Senior Strategy officer at Bend the Arc: A Jewish Partnership for Justice), Eric Ward (Executive Director of the Western States Center), and the moderator, David Bernstein (JCPA’s President and CEO).  This links to the Facebook video.  We’re promised a YouTube video soon after the conference is over.

Dove Kent

I had never heard Ms. Kent before and was pleasantly surprised by her non-combative style.  Because of her previous position as director of JFREJ (the New York-based Jews For Racial and Economic Justice), I had expected her to be more strident and radical.

I’ve heard Eric Ward several times and read his illuminating 2017 essay, “Skin in the Game: How Antisemitism Animates White Nationalism,” explaining how antisemitism is a cornerstone of white nationalist racism.  He did not disappoint, noting that “nihilism” is on the rise, nuance and complexity are increasingly rejected, and that “antisemitism provides simple answers for complex times,” further observing that the terrorist attacks on 9/11/2001 gave “permission” for hate crimes, with renewed inspiration under Trump.  

Eric K. Ward

I’ve read Prof. Lipstadt’s latest book and heard her speak before on antisemitism.  I found her presentation less nuanced than her book, and I didn’t entirely agree with her analysis.  While I appreciate her point that Israel’s settlements policy should not excuse antisemitism, I do see a correlation between expanding settlements and other repressive measures against Palestinians (even when sometimes justifiable on security grounds) and antisemitic incidents.  In my view, violent and other untoward acts against Jews in Western Europe (especially in France) were triggered by the inevitable response of Israel’s military and police to the Intifada that began in late 2000 and has continued with the conflict since — but especially after Netanyahu and Likud returned to power in 2009, when Israel’s government has repeatedly chosen the expansion of settlements over a good-faith effort to negotiate a viable two-state solution.  

Deborah E. Lipstadt

Lipstadt’s repetition of the truism that “Jews don’t cause antisemitism” ignores the context created by the ongoing failure of Israelis and Palestinians to conclude peace.  Although attacks by Muslims upon Jews in Western Europe are unforgivable, they do have something to do with what Jews have been doing in Israel (not that Palestinians are blameless either).  

Lipstadt also labeled a recently reported occurrence on the campaign trail in New Hampshire as illustrative of leftwing antisemitism.  According to Lipstadt, a questioner identifying herself as a Jew and a member of the radical anti-occupation group, If Not Now, asked a candidate whether she’d protest AIPAC’s alleged “alliance” with “Islamophobes, antisemites and white nationalists” by boycotting AIPAC’s national conference; the unnamed candidate “rather glibly” responded, “yeah.”

Examining this further, I found that the candidate was Elizabeth Warren, but according to an article in Haaretz, her response was decidedly not glib: 

The senator then transitioned into support for the two-state solution and direct negotiations between the parties, adding that “we are not a good friend to either party when we disrupt that process and keep it from going forward.” It also hindered that cause if America keeps “standing with one party and saying we’re on your side, we are going to give you all of the things you ask for,” she said. 

While claiming not to cast aspersions upon anybody’s right to disagree with AIPAC, Lipstadt did seem unduly protective of AIPAC’s reputation.  It’s legitimate for the professor to question the propriety of such an exchange, but it’s a far cry from actual antisemitism. 

She went on to complain that the questioner was exemplifying the “as a Jew” formulation that legitimizes calumnies against Jews or Jewish institutions.  Whether this was really that may depend upon one’s opinion of AIPAC, but the phenomenon is worth noting.  Jewish identity is weaponized to bolster anti-Israel activism, as in the Jewish Voice for Peace.  Unlike JVP, If Not Now is not officially anti-Zionist; it’s probably more anti-occupation than anti-Israel, but its tactics and rhetoric have become increasingly strident and disruptive.     

Somewhat to my surprise (and relief), Dove Kent’s pushback to Lipstadt’s New Hampshire example was gentle and generalized.  She said that it was important to distinguish between Jews struggling to express their political values in relation to the US and Israel, and actual attacks on the Jewish community. 

She went on to talk about her time as director of Jews For Racial and Economic Justice; in 2016, JFREJ submitted a proposal for a workshop at the bi-annual conference of Facing Race — described as a forum for thousands of racial justice activists — on the intersection between antisemitism and racism.  The conference suggested instead that JFREJ team up with a Christian group in a session on “faith-based organizing”; so there was no mention of antisemitism at this conference just after the 2016 election when antisemitism was beginning to percolate.  Nevertheless, JFREJ attended, and two years later, there were three sessions on antisemitism (including one with Eric Ward); antisemitism was featured alongside other hatreds. 

Kent argued that getting the left to focus attention upon antisemitism required a lot of work, but was facilitated by JFREJ’s positioning as an “ally” fostering cooperation on issues of mutual concern.  She sees fighting antisemitism on the right as more difficult; she does acknowledge the existence of conservatives who are not antisemitic, but also knows that her organization would not have the advantage on that front of being allies on other issues.   

The panelists seemed to agree that Jews have a right to define for themselves what may oppress or threaten them, a right that is unassailable on the left for other embattled groups in our society — such as African Americans, Hispanics or LGBTQ Americans.  JFREJ focuses exclusively on domestic issues; sadly, if Kent worked for explicitly Zionist or pro-Zionist organizations, their success with much of the activist left would likely be impossible.