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How wins for BDS can be wins for American Jews

The results of two Democratic primaries yesterday spell out an important message, not just for American politics but for American Jews. The victories of Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Black Lives Matter activist Cori Bush of Missouri, both of whom have voiced support for the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement against Israel, will force American Jews to think more broadly about what American Jewish political interests look like going forward, and an emerging distinction between “pro-Jewish” politics and “pro-Israel” politics.

Joel Swanson | Artist: Noah Lubin

Joel Swanson | Artist: Noah Lubin

Tlaib, a Michigan incumbent, defeated a primary challenge from Detroit City Council President Brenda Jones. Representative Tlaib, the first Palestinian American to serve in Congress and one of two Muslim women currently serving in Congress, has voiced her support for BDS in opposition to Israel’s human rights violations in the Palestinian territories; unsurprisingly, pro-Israel lobbying groups spent at least $700,000 targeting Tlaib in the recent election, only to see their efforts come up short.

But in an even more surprising upset, Bush, a left-wing community activist, defeated long-time incumbent Democratic Congressman William Lacy Clay Jr. of Missouri by a narrow margin. Bush led 2014 protests in Ferguson, Missouri following the fatal shooting of an 18-year-old Black man named Michael Brown by Darren Wilson, a white police officer. And yesterday, she single-handedly ended a political dynasty; until now, Missouri’s First Congressional District had been represented in Congress by Clay or his father for a half-century.

Like Tlaib, Bush has also expressed support for BDS. In a now-deleted post to her campaign website, Bush wrote that,

“In these times, it is important to be specific with our language and direct in the actions we take. In our current geopolitical economy, money talks far louder than speech alone. This is why nonviolent actions like the BDS movement are so important — and why the effort to mischaracterize and demonize the BDS movement by its opponents is so urgent.”

Her support for BDS was something her opponent tried to take advantage of; in a mailer sent to Jewish residents of the district last week, Rep. Clay tried to rally Jewish support by highlighting Bush’s statements on BDS, as well as her work with Palestinian American activist Linda Sarsour. Clay also received funding from pro-Israel lobbying groups.

As with Jones, it was not enough to save his candidacy.

We should be careful not to extrapolate too far from two primary election results; it is entirely likely that the majority of the Democratic primary voters in these two Congressional districts were not thinking about Israel and Palestine at all as they cast their votes yesterday. Michigan Democratic voters probably thought Rep. Tlaib had done a good job representing their district in her first term and effectively opposing President Trump’s policies, while Missouri Democratic voters may have seen Rep. Clay as an out-of-touch scion of a political dynasty who has not really connected with his constituents in years.

But Tlaib and Bush’s primary victories nonetheless herald a sea change in the Democratic Party’s relationship with the BDS movement. While it remains true that the majority of Democratic Party elected leaders, including presidential nominee Joe Biden, oppose BDS, support for BDS looks likely to become increasingly mainstream among left-wing Democratic representatives in the coming years.

And this, in turn, means American Jewish voters and organizations have a choice to make in the coming years: They can continue to attack Rep. Tlaib and other supporters of BDS as incorrigibly anti-Semitic, as many Jewish organizations have done, and they can continue to spend money trying to take these candidates down. Or, they can use this opportunity to rethink what American Jewish political interests look like going forward.

They should pick the latter.

When it comes to the real threats facing American Jews, Jewish institutional organizations do not speak for the majority of us anymore, if they ever did. They have long been disproportionately concerned with calling out anti-Semitism from the political left, in the form of BDS and opposition to the state of Israel.

But actual American Jews feel differently about where the real threats facing our community lie, and what our community’s political interests are. The truth is, only four percent of American Jews consider Israel one of our top political priorities when deciding who to vote for in elections. When we step into the voting booth, most of us aren’t thinking about the interests of a state where we choose not to live.

And it’s no wonder, when data shows that the real threats facing American Jewish safety overwhelmingly come not from left-wing BDS activists, but from far-right white supremacists. A recent report by the Anti-Defamation League found that the far-right committed the vast majority of anti-Semitic and extremist violence in the United States in 2019; out of 270 anti-Semitic incidents committed by known ideological extremists in 2019, two-thirds were committed by the far-right.

And American Jews know this, which is why 78% of us consider the far-right to be a “very serious” or “moderately serious” threat to American Jewish safety today, compared to only 36% who think this about the far-left.


Watch the video of our “Jewish conversation about Juneteenth” with Rabbi Sandra Lawson and Tema Smith.


Indeed, it isn’t a coincidence that just one day after the primary election victories of Rashida Tlaib and Cori Bush, President Trump baselessly blamed Jewish billionaire George Soros for funding left-wing protests in the United States — a conspiracy theory directly cited by the Pittsburgh synagogue shooter.

In times like these, American Jews desperately need allies against the most significant threats facing our communities. And if we can overlook divisions over BDS, which is not a political priority for most actual American Jewish voters (whatever our community organizations might think), we might come to find that our allies in this political moment look like politicians such as Bush and Tlaib.

After all, research finds that one of the strongest predictors for anti-Semitism in Americans is also holding bigoted views towards Muslims.

None of this means that American Jewish voters need to endorse BDS, or agree with Bush and Tlaib. But the truth is, these politicians’ stances are not as hard and fast as many of their critics make them out to be.

In response to criticisms that her support for BDS unfairly singles out Israel, Rep. Tlaib has pointed out that she also supports BDS campaigns targeting Muslim countries that violate human rights in the Middle East, such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt. And in a recent interview, Tlaib insisted that BDS is no litmus test for her; for those who oppose BDS, it “doesn’t make them less progressive,” Rep. Tlaib said.

In the same interview, Tlaib took the time to highlight growing solidarity between the Muslim and Jewish communities against rising white supremacist violence in the US. “What I see is all of us coming together and pushing against that,” she said. “It is my absolute honor to be the person to say, ‘Enough, you will not speak with this hate agenda. You will not hurt my Jewish neighbors. You will not oppress them with your words, your policies, your tropes.’”

If American Jews expand our concerns about anti-Semitism beyond simply BDS, we will find that the candidates Tlaib and Bush defeated were not so pure, either. Rep. Tlaib’s now-vanquished opponent, Brenda Jones, is a long-time admirer of Louis Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam. And Rep. Clay responded to his surprising loss at the hands of Bush by blaming Jewish money.

He blamed “outside money from sources associated with Bernie Sanders,” an allusion to the long-time anti-Semitic trope of Jewish puppet-masters using their money to buy election results — not so far from the trope Congresswoman Ilhan Omar has been attacked for invoking.

American Jews are not going to agree with Tlaib and Bush on every issue, and we may not agree with them on BDS. But Rep. Tlaib has made it clear that this is all right with her. At a time when analysts agree that far-right extremism is by far the gravest terrorist threat facing the United States, we can disagree on BDS and still work together.

American Jews have a choice to make: We can allow disagreements over BDS to divide us from possible allies. Or we can stand with a new set of increasingly diverse political allies against the rising tide of white nationalism in this country, and use this opportunity to rethink what American Jewish politics really means.

The victories of Rep. Tlaib and Bush is a perfect chance to do just that.

Joel Swanson is a contributing columnist for the Forward and a Ph.D. student at the University of Chicago, studying modern Jewish intellectual history and the philosophy of religions. Find him on Twitter @jh_swanson.

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