On August 12, Alt-Right bigots, Klansmen, and neo-Nazis marched the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia to “end Jewish influence in America,” simultaneously threatening other minority groups in a horrifying display of perverse and profound evil. The anti-Semitism was unmistakable.
On the same day, nearly 800 miles away, on a sunny afternoon in Chicago, a group of American Jews fought a small but crucial fight for the soul of the American left. The battle lines were more complicated, but ultimately, though, the age-old hatred was the same.
The American progressive movement has been devolving into a safe haven for radical anti-Semitism, couched as anti-Zionism and framed in the language of social justice. The movement exploits sympathetic, compassionate, and often young Americans -– many of whom are themselves Jews -– teaching them that those who support a Jewish homeland, Jewish self-determination and Jewish-liberation are in fact oppressors, murderers and even Nazis.
For anyone with even cursory knowledge of civil rights history, the premise of this argument is absurd. American Jews have long been at the forefront of our country’s fight for social justice: Felix Frankfurter helped found the ACLU; Rabbi Heschel marched hand-in-hand with Dr. King; Bella Abzug led the crucial fights for women’s rights of the 1960s and 1970s. Without the courageous work and pivotal successes of heroes like these, many Americans would still be fighting for now-achieved advancements in the protection of their fundamental and inalienable civil rights. But in many circles on the left today, these same social justice warriors – all of whom were outspoken and committed Zionists – would not be welcome to participate in the movements that they helped to build.
The January 2017 Women’s March was a powerful moment for American democracy –- but its organizers declared shamelessly that Zionists could not be feminists and therefore should be ostracized. On March 8, the same organizers sponsored the “Day Without A Woman,” organized by convicted Palestinian terrorist Rasmea Odeh. At the Chicago Dyke March in June, three longtime queer activists were ejected from the event for publicly displaying a Star of David on a rainbow pride flag -– deemed by the march’s organizers to be an unacceptable “Zionist symbol.” To these women, the star was simply representing another layer of their intrinsic identities as queer, Jewish, human beings.
The Chicago SlutWalk, which is part of a global effort to stand against patriarchy and dismantle rape culture, initially declared that they would apply the Dyke March’s anti-Semitic policy at their August 12th event. They later retracted and issued a statement that everyone should “come as they are” -– but organizers reaffirmed their “pro-Palestinian” position and expressed unambiguously that those of us who identify proudly as both progressive and Zionist would be best just staying home.
Many Jews now feel besieged by extremists on both sides of the political spectrum. It is no longer hard to envision a future America that resembles Europe today, where anti-Semitism has driven many communities to leave altogether.
That’s why a group of passionate Zionists with a history of progressive activism came together to demand inclusion in the movements that were originally spearheaded by the proud Zionist civil rights leaders who came before us. We launched the Zioness Movement, declaring that the same values of human rights and self-determination at the heart of progressive causes also underlie Zionism: the movement for one of the world’s historically oppressed minorities to achieve self-determination through the creation of a Jewish State. Although many avowed “anti-Zionists” don’t seem to actually know the meaning or history of the word, Zionism has nothing to do with the current politics or policies of any foreign government. It is simply the belief that the Jewish people– the first and most enduring persecuted community—are entitled to equality and human dignity.
The Zioness is a fierce, unrelenting advocate for marginalized peoples and an activist who understands, from history and experience, what it means to fight for justice. The Zioness asks not only to exercise her or his own protected rights — the opportunity to speak, assemble, and advocate for things that matter — but also demands acceptance as a supporter and activist for marginalized and oppressed communities in the United States and around the globe. Just as she combats anti-Semitism with Zionism, she stands in solidarity with other minorities as they work to reclaim their own agency.
Paradoxically, SlutWalk organizers were dismayed by the announcement that the Zionesses would march, even though our intention was to join in unanimity with the original themes that the international SlutWalk initiative was founded to address. As feminists, community organizers, civil rights attorneys, Jewish leaders and professionals, we came together on Saturday to combat rape culture, institutional sexism, slut-shaming and victim-blaming. We came to fight for equal access to affordable health care, for unqualified reproductive rights, for equal pay and paid family leave, and for control over our own bodies -– as well as our minds. We came to declare that women’s rights are human rights, and to actively oppose a social and political establishment that, in 2017, still leaves women marginalized and too often, dismissed.
Unable and unwilling to accept us as allies, the SlutWalk called us “disgusting,” and accused us of “appropriating” the day “in order to promote [our] own nationalist agenda.”
The irony was not lost on us when the organizers of the Chicago event in fact hijacked the multinational SlutWalk movement as an opportunity to slander another marginalized community. Instead of focusing on the poignant stories of their own invited speakers, SlutWalk organizers and attendees chased Zioness activists in circles, smacking down our signs with red umbrellas and pictures of convicted rapists, and blocking us from seeing, hearing or interacting respectfully with the presenters. As the program continued, speakers began to focus almost exclusively on Israel, ranting blood libels and racist slurs against Jewish people and the Jewish state, and attributing the policies (some actual, some delusional) of a foreign government to us, American Jews.
On several occasions, the entire crowd erupted into chants of “Free, Free Palestine” for extended periods of time. When the march ended, the remaining participants hightailed to an event honoring the aforementioned Palestinian homicide bomber, Rasmea Odeh, responsible for the cruel deaths of two innocent Jewish college students, celebrating her “accomplishments” and glorifying her murderous ideology in anticipation of her imminent, court-ordered deportation.
Conspicuously missing from the content of any these presentations was any discussion of slut-shaming, victim blaming, transphobia, LGBTQ equality, reproductive rights, or any other topic relating remotely to the glaring gender disparities anywhere in the world – except, allegedly, Israel. Even more shocking: the commentary at the SlutWalk was nearly identical to the language being used at the exact same time to terrorize Jews and Zionists in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Does this sound progressive, or liberal, or tolerant, to you?
True progressivism means putting aside some political differences to advance major social reforms. And true progress will not be achieved until we learn to appreciate and understand that people can have these differences on a variety of topics, but work as allies to fight for the greater good on issues so central to a truly free society. I am deeply offended, and even disgusted, by the antisemitism I have faced from people in many political circles. I have the capacity and the desire, however, to unite with them to fight for women’s rights, for Black lives and for acceptance of LGBTQ people, alongside anyone who believes in the significance of those aspirations. I am a true progressive, and anyone who refuses to accept that reality should seriously consider whether they even understand the term.
Movements are successful when they reach a tipping point: when the number of supporters outgrows the number of detractors, or when enough powerful voices make clear that opposition to equality and human dignity is simply wrong. Anyone who truly wants to further the goals of civil rights for all must welcome every sincere supporter and social justice advocate willing to dedicate time, energy and resources to fight for what’s right.
Since its establishment last week, the Zioness Movement has grown much more rapidly than any of its founders could have possibly imagined. Jews and Zionists are now affirming our progressivism, and we will share our history of advocacy and activism with anyone who wants to fight for the civil rights of every human being — no matter their race, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, national origin, age, occupation, or creed. We will fight for progress, as we always have, and we will not be deterred by those who wish to exclude us on the basis of our own innate characteristics.
With the rise of fascist tendencies on the far right and a president who fails to unequivocally denounce the depraved, Nazi-influenced, white supremacists terrorizing Jews, African Americans and other marginalized groups, it has never been more imperative that proud progressive Zionists stand up for ourselves as we fight for the basic rights of all others.
This weekend, we walked for you; we walked for us; we walked for all. But this weekend was only the beginning.