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The CNN documentary glossed over progressive antisemitism. I’ve faced it, and we must confront it

Antisemitism on the progressive left is insidious, and we ignore it to our detriment

“While the Jewish people are no strangers to adversity, our oppression doesn’t fit cleanly into the current framework,” I calmly explained. “We’re an inconvenient category with which no one’s quite certain what to do. It’s a lot easier to dismiss us and move on. There’s an element of shame, an element of fear we are expected to internalize. Our burden feels like it is ours to carry alone.”

I spoke these words at the Denver Womxn’s March in January 2019, a few months after the horrific massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh and shortly after allegations of antisemitism created divisions among leadership and community supporters of the national Women’s March.

I’m proud to have spoken about the importance of including Jews and the fullness of their identities in the progressive movement. The problem is, I’m not sure that’s quite what I did. 

My language was careful, tentative. I did not clearly say what I really needed to say: There are elements within the progressive movement that are harming, excluding and erasing Jews. And I’m imploring the movement to wake up, and to stop.

I was reminded of my speech Sunday evening as I watched the CNN documentary “Rising Hate: Antisemitism in America.” While I’m grateful for mention of antisemitism’s manifestations on the progressive left, especially in the form of anti-Zionism on college campuses, as the program came to a close, I couldn’t help but feel I wanted — and the Jews of America needed — so much more.

Antisemitism, in the form of anti-Zionism on the progressive left, is not an issue exclusive to college campuses. It is a common feature of progressive spaces: Pro-Israel students, activists, and staff at progressive organizations are forced to make a false choice between their Zionism and their progressivism in order to be included in movements meant to create a better world. I’ve seen and experienced this dynamic play out firsthand in over a decade of work in various progressive organizations. In today’s American progressive movement, Zionism, a progressive victory of self-determination for the Jewish people, has come to represent the antithesis of progressive values.

Why are we so afraid to delve into the problem of antisemitism on the political left? Of the exclusion of Jewish students on campus when they identify as proud Zionists, the rejection of Jewish participation in a marches meant to celebrate diversity and acceptance, the unwillingness to address the progressive movement’s most pressing issues side by side with Jewish organizations, the complete erasure of the Jewish connection to their indigenous homeland in Israel, and the idea that denying the legitimacy of the Jewish state is anything short of clear and blatant antisemitism? Why can’t we talk about it — all of it?

Is it because antisemitism on the political right is an existential threat to the Jewish people? There’s no argument that antisemitism on the right deserves our urgent attention. Jonathan Greenblatt of the ADL compared it, in a 2021 Washington Post op-ed and again in the CNN special report, to the tornado that unceremoniously torches your community. But the antisemitism on the left — the kind Greenblatt compared to the slowly emerging threat of climate change — influences how society understands and engages with our community. We need not create a hierarchy of threats — we must name each one plainly, and address each in turn.

The causes of the progressive movement — protecting and expanding reproductive rights, addressing the existential threat of climate change and so many others — are so urgent and critical. Do we feel that diverting our attention from them for even a moment to take a step back and question our approach is irresponsible? I would argue that addressing this insidious element of the progressive movement is also urgent. A progressive movement can never have its intended impact on the world while it fails to live up to its own values, values represented by celebrating Jewish liberation and self-determination in our homeland.

Perhaps it’s because we live in a TL;DR world, desperate for any catchy slogan that tells us how to feel about any given issue; shuddering at the thought of navigating nuance, of grasping multiple perspectives, of layering the complexities of history onto our chosen, cherished opinions. But true progress requires grappling with complex ideas, considering various perspectives, and, when confronted with new evidence, changing your mind.

In today’s progressive movement, it’s commonly accepted to view issues in terms of power and oppression, good and bad, black and white. But no issue, no story, no identity is quite so simple, and we erase lived experiences if we can’t delve more deeply. The binaries into which we’ve forced ourselves and each other have created convenient categories, but there are deep flaws within the framework we’ve built and through which we insist on understanding our world: If we pull on that thread, will the inevitable unraveling of it all be something we cannot withstand?

Without us even realizing it, antisemitism, the world’s oldest hate, ever-present everywhere, sometimes subtle and sometimes overt, at turns hurtful, violent, genocidal, has seeped into the air we breathe, into our veins, into the deepest recesses of our hearts, and I fear we are helplessly incapable of facing it in all its ugliness.

Whatever the reason, I urge the progressive movement to gather the courage to face manifestations of antisemitism on the political left, to go beyond a few minutes in an hourlong television program or a hesitant speech. I urge them to listen when Jewish voices tell them what is happening to our community, when Jewish voices tell them who we are and where we are from, when Jewish voices sound the alarm of antisemitism we recognize all too well in its vast and varied forms.

Here is what my Jewish voice is saying: Our identities are being decided for us, as dominant voices across the political landscape label us “white,” “oppressors,” “settlers.” Our history is being erased when our connection to our indigenous homeland is dismissed, our presence in that homeland deemed “colonialism.” We are being forced to answer not only for the policies and practices of the Israeli government, but for the very existence of a state that represents Jewish liberation and self-determination. We are being called “Zionists” in a voice meant to carry the weight of a slur.

Left-wing antisemitism may look very different from what we face from the other end of the political spectrum, but it is no less urgent that we name it and work together to stop it.

“The choice of which side of history one stands on belongs to us all,” I said near the end of my speech. “I will always stand on the side of love and justice, and looking out at this crowd, I know I’m not standing there alone. When we all stand there together, no matter our race, ethnicity, religion, or any other element of our identities, that’s when we’ll create the world in which we want to live.”

A truly progressive movement would rise to meet this moment, and address its role in the problem of rising antisemitism in America, with clarity and conviction.

To contact the author, email [email protected]

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