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My boyfriend admires someone I think is antisemitic. What now?

From its start in 1906, A Bintel Brief was a pillar of the Forward, helping generations of Jewish immigrants learn how to be American. Now our columnists are helping people navigate the complexities of being Jewish in 2021. Send questions to [email protected].

Dear Bintel,

I’ve found myself in a bit of a moral quandary. I’m a Jewish woman from a major U.S. city, and I have been a supporter of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement since I heard about them in 2013. I have attended marches and protests and tried to join the efforts of educating myself further on the issues. This past year, after the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, I found myself and those around me more compelled than ever to not just march but to try and get involved and be a part of action towards real change.

My long-term partner, who is Black but not Jewish, started attending BLM meetings and is getting pretty involved. Both of us regularly attend chapter meetings, which include organized workshops and events specifically for non-Black participants too.

Recently, he started talking about the co-founder of his chapter and how amazing she was. Interested, I looked her up, and was pretty horrified to see she is an outspoken supporter of Louis Farrakhan. This sparked further research which mostly begot things I already knew: The Movement for Black Lives, a different organization but with similar objectives, singling out Israel in their platform, but since removing it, some shaky support of the BDS movement (never a full commitment), as well as some new things: BLM linking Ferguson to Gaza in 2014, and the BLM UK chapter issuing some questionable tweets this past year.

I was pretty upset by what I found. My boyfriend suggested that he raise the issue at the next chapter meeting, which felt to me like a kind but misguided suggestion. I tried to explain to him how you can’t just go into a meeting and ask people if they dislike Jews and then come back and say they don’t!

When I pointed out the stuff I had found, he made it clear that if I didn’t want him to be involved, he wouldn’t continue going to meetings. That’s when I was like, ‘Whoa, I don’t want you to disavow something because I read an article!’ But he was pretty adamant that if I felt uncomfortable because of the antisemitism, then he didn’t want to be involved either.

I’m trying to figure out what to do. If I see this behavior, and I don’t call it out, then am I being a Jew-traitor? That sounds so dramatic, but as a Jew, I feel like the people on the right hate us and the people on the left hate us, so who will be there for us when the time comes?

Look, as a whole, I know the issue of Israel can be fraught and I am inclined to overlook certain ignorances because of the amount of misinformation that abounds, but on the other hand sometimes anti-semitism is just that: anti-semitism. Where do you draw the line?

Caught in a Quandary

Dear Quandary,

“‘Where to draw the line” ’ when it comes to deciding what is antisemitism (and, within that, what is ignorant antisemitism and what is malicious antisemitism) is one of the most hotly debated questions in Jewish life today. I’m not sure my own take on the question will work for you, but I want to think through a few options for what you should do next.

In my view, withdrawal is the most dramatic form of moral protest, and should be the last option, never the first. While I understand why this information so rattled you, I think there are a few points of action worth pursuing before you decide you can’t be involved with your Black Lives Matter chapter.

After all, you’ve been an active supporter of Black Lives Matter since its founding in 2013, and you’re in a long-term relationship with a Black man. The issues on which Black Lives Matter works to enact change are presumably close to your heart, so I’m not sure what it would even mean for you to not support the movement.

Nonetheless, you’ve suddenly found yourself morally out of step with a movement that you support for its moral urgency. If you grew up in a Jewish community that viewed support for BDS as the quintessential expression of antisemitism in America today, then abruptly realizing you might be surrounded by people who hold a view you find personally dangerous is going to be scary (even though people who support Black Lives Matter do not necessarily support BDS).

It’s hard to capture why, exactly, it is so scary to suddenly be on the outs with your community — why that is so vulnerable and unsettling — but I understand that feeling completely. These are the people you’ve marched with and protested with, and now you don’t know if they would have your back. You wonder if you might even have to hide your true identity. That’s disturbing. I’m really glad that your partner is being so supportive.

So what to do? I have three suggestions.

dove flies through broken heart

Image by Liana finck

Set up a meeting with your chapter head.

I removed the identifying information here to protect her from an avalanche of unwanted attention (and because I thought it would derail responses to this letter), but your original question made it clear who you meant, and I sent her an email to set up a call before writing this response. On the call, she made it very clear to me she does not support Farrakhan, and was horrified that someone in her own chapter would believe such a thing.

I pointed out that such claims are made in various places on the internet, and that she did not openly disavow them. She said she was unaware of such claims being made beyond a small right-wing group that has harassed her over many years. We discussed some of her views and experiences. The call was kind and civil.

Now, your chapter head holds very strong views on Israel’s treatment of Palestinians which some in the Jewish community might interpret as antisemitic. She has not had positive experiences with pro-Israel groups in the U.S. I’m not saying that when you meet, everything will feel simple and supportive.

But I do think there is value in risking some of our own security in these moments by reaching out to the people we are in community with. This is a person you already know, and your boyfriend admires, and who does good work. You came to the internet for advice, but sometimes we have to turn to the very people who prompted our questions.

William Sloane Coffin, longtime chaplain of Yale University, once said “When your heart is full of fear, you won’t seek truth; you’ll seek security.” You ask if you are a traitor to your people if you don’t ‘call out’ this behavior. But before we get to the calling out, let’s get to the truth.

If you do have a conversation, make sure to note how the lack of clarity around antisemitism impacts your role as a Jewish member of the chapter: Do you avoid telling other chapter members that you are Jewish, or avoid sharing your plans for Jewish holidays? Consider what other specific questions you have about her positions.

The fact that your chapter head does not support Farrakhan sidesteps the question of what to do with those who do. At this point, the homophobic, misogynistic, and antisemitic beliefs and statements of Louis Farakhan have been denounced by so many people, including so many Black leaders and especially Black Jewish leaders, that it’s hard not to wonder at those who continue to praise him.

Rebecca Pierce, a Black Jewish writer, wrote up a Twitter thread a few years ago in response to the near-constant discourse in the broader Jewish community about Farakhan’s antisemitism. She notes why the continued focus on him in non-Black spaces unnerves her, but she also explains why she feels that leaders who continue to praise him should be challenged for the harm such praise causes to the many marginalized communities hurt by his words.

A discussion about Farrakhan is its own topic, but not, it turns out, relevant to your exact situation.

Find a progressive Jewish organization in your area to join.

It’s great that you and your partner are involved in communities dedicated to enacting social change in line with your values. But it sounds like you don’t feel you have a place to process your pain or confusion around antisemitism and anti-Israel sentiment with people who share the rest of your values. I think it can be more fruitful to have conversations about Israel and Zionism in Jewish spaces, with other Jews who understand your relationship to Israel and support your same progressive causes.

You also note that you are looking for information, or at least don’t want to make decisions based on one or two articles you’ve read online. Being part of a Jewish social justice organization could give you access to a broader community of people who share all your values, and make you feel less alone in these conversations.

Continue to be open-minded as you investigate the statements which disturb you.

I am very concerned about antisemitism in the U.S., but I’m actually not as bothered as you by the criticisms of Israel that you call antisemitic. I know that’s a very concrete position to take on one of the most controversial issues of the day, but I personally feel that we sometimes are too quick to associate support for Palestinians living under really difficult conditions with antisemitism.

For example, you name some questionable tweets by BLM UK as part of your concern. Nadine Batchelor-Hunt, a Black Jewish writer from the UK, wrote a piece for Glamour on why the BLM UK tweet’s use of the word “‘gagged”’ felt antisemitic to her, and why there is much to be gained by left-wing movements educating themselves more on antisemitic language.

She notes how the tweet “triggered a sequence of behaviour that was so easy to avoid but so difficult to remedy,” because it just opened the gates for a situation where “political opponents to Black Lives Matter manipulated the situation to suggest BLM was an antisemitic endeavour,” while at the same time “far-left antisemites began to suggest Jews were making their concern up about the tweet and that it was because they didn’t care about Palestinians.”

Her description of this cycle of events resonated with me; I’ve been part of conversations where it feels like the outrage in response to certain statements was not a sincere reaction to the actual language being used, but inspired by beliefs that different groups already had about one another. This pre-packaged outrage can be from any side, and I appreciated the way she put into context how assumptions of bad faith really hampers the ability to understand the pain others are feeling. Again, we want to start from a place of truth about one another’s beliefs, not fear of what those beliefs might be.

If that resonates at all, then the first thing I’d suggest when it comes to the specific events which disturb you is to think through whether you have all the information you want about these instances.

For example, I find this summary helpful when trying to understand more of the context around the claims made about BDS and various Black Lives Matter chapters.

You also mention comparisons between the protests in Ferguson and the second Gaza war. These comparisons began when Palestinians being tear-gassed by Israeli soldiers started tweeting tips to Black Lives Matter protestors being tear-gassed by American policemen (there was overlap in timing between the two).

For some people, the fact that the comparison arose from concurrent events and not from a proactive desire to bring Israel into the conflict, out of the blue, mitigates some feelings around its purely antisemitic motivation. Others would argue that the dynamics at play were so different that any comparison can only be explained by antisemitism. Emma Green has an article in The Atlantic that outlines more of this history.

As you consider how you want to understand the antisemitism of these moments for yourself, I’d first investigate if your initial emotional reactions persist when you have the full, nuanced story. They might! But understanding some of the social factors that produced these moments can make them feel less like personal attacks. That can make it easier to initiate conversations with those in your orbit. I’m not telling you where to draw the line, but I do think you will feel more confident and comfortable engaging with these sentiments and individuals if you feel you have a more complete picture.

Illustration of a woman running away from something.

Image by Liana finck

It is no secret that being pro-Israel is becoming more and more aligned with conservative positions. I don’t know how you feel about that, but if you want to change how people view Israel or Zionism, then I imagine it would more fruitful for you to stick it out in your chapter, and not reinforce the idea that supporting Israel is antithetical to being socially progressive. You care deeply about Israel and deeply about police brutality and systematic racism in America, which puts you in a strong position to engage in those conversations.

The truth is that antisemitism exists. Jews of every color and nationality know that. And antisemitism exists even in communities doing good work. That can be really uncomfortable to discuss. But it won’t vanish on its own, and there is real value in having someone who is in close relationship with the movement and its values be the one to call out antisemitic language, assumptions, or tropes.

Some people really are antisemitic and dangerous, but I think the Jewish community has more to lose than to gain when we assume everyone using disturbing antisemitic language is a lost cause.

So my advice to you is to keep up the good fight in movements that fight for values you believe in, keep investigating these moments of antisemitism as they come up for you, and begin building out ways to have these conversations with the people around you. It’s all hard, and it’s all really important.

Shira Telushkin lives in Brooklyn, where she writes on religion, fashion, and culture for a variety of publications. She is currently finishing a book on monastic intrigue in modern America. Got a question? Send it to [email protected].


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