By Jesse Bernstein, Ellen O’Brien
12-22-20/4:52p.m.: This post has been updated to include a summary of the second panel as well as a video.
A Zoom panel hosted by the political and advocacy arm of Jewish Voice for Peace called “Dismantling Anti-Semitism: Jews Talk Justice” was the subject of pointed criticism prior to its occurrence on Tuesday night. Op-eds in the Jerusalem Post and the Jewish News Syndicate referred to the event as representative of a “new low” for the organization, an “Orwellian farce” that represented an attempt by the panelists to “[camouflage] their Jew-hatred.”
In the end, just under 1,000 viewers tuned into a discussion of anti-Semitism, intersectionality and Palestinian advocacy that featured a Chanukah candle lighting, a few impassioned speeches and an exploration of the roots, expressions and utility of anti-Semitism to those who wield it.
“I know that there are probably a lot of people who are watching this who came to watch it because they don’t like the folks on this panel,” said essayist and self-professed cultural Zionist Peter Beinart, one of four panelists for the evening. “Do they sound like people who hate Jews to you? Trust your gut.”
Beinart was joined by Temple University professor Marc Lamont Hill, who prerecorded his answers after his father died in recent days; U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich), who has been chased by accusations of anti-Semitism in the past; and University of Illinois at Chicago professor and activist Barbara Ransby. The panel was moderated by Rabbi Alissa Wise, a longtime JVP leader.
All four panelists and the moderator are strident critics of Israel, and all but Beinart have signaled their participation in the formal Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (Beinart has in the past called for a boycott of products manufactured in the West Bank). One of the key points of the panel was to disentangle what they believe to be legitimate criticism of Israel from anti-Semitism. By the panel’s lights, the two have been improperly entangled by mainstream and conservative Jewish groups, such that Wise and Beinart repeatedly face accusations of self-hatred.
The panelists all rejected the notion that pro-Palestinian advocacy, including support for an Israel boycott, constitutes anti-Semitism. They all said that anti-Semitism comes predominantly from the right, and agreed that it is best fought by allying with other oppressed groups in solidarity.
“Palestinians that advocate for Palestinian rights are not the enemy, those of us who advocate for BDS as a strategy to advance the rights of disenfranchised and exiled Palestinians are not the enemy,” said Ransby, who noted her decades-long marriage to a Jewish man and the influence of her Jewish father-in-law, who lost family members in the Holocaust. Rather, she said, the enemy is the shooter in Pittsburgh who killed 11 Jews, “the enemy is the kind of people who go into a synagogue in California, north of San Diego, and open fire to do deadly damage.”
Ransby also spoke of the historical imperative of marginalized groups to work together for change, a point that was echoed by Hill, who praised Jews who had worked with him in activist movements. He also said people need to call out anti-Semitism in their own ideological camps.
“I not only became aware of anti-Semitism as an idea, but I began to hear it and see it in practice,” he said. “There were moments when I would be in movements or be in meetings, I’d be reading a book or pamphlet or literature and I would hear the way Jewish people were being smeared.”
He added, “I became keenly aware of how dangerous it is if we do nothing to stand in solidarity against anti-Semitism, to stand in solidarity with Jewish people as they fight for freedom, safety, dignity and self-determination.”
It was a point he repeated: “I can’t imagine a vision of freedom that doesn’t include Jewish people …. There’s no way we can have a world that is free with hatred of Jews.” This is why, he noted, he called out Ice Cube on Twitter for his hateful remarks and will continue to challenge those who are anti-Semitic.
“We have to realize just how bound up we are,” Hill said, speaking of non-Jewish African Americans and white Jews in particular. He pointed to George Soros conspiracy theories, including the one that claims that Soros is the power behind the Black Lives Matter movement. He said those theories are expressly designed to be both anti-Semitic and anti-Black, as they strip Black people of their agency, and promote the idea of sinister Jewish power controlling others.
Beinart, who has argued for years that the Jewish community needs to welcome anti-Zionists, said he believes that, by the same token, “Zionist Jews should not be excluded from progressive spaces.” He also spoke of the need to combat anti-Semitism on the left.
“It’s very important that as we fight against the greatest anti-Semitic threat, which is the threat from the white nationalist right, that we also show a great concern to make sure that progressive movements are not tainted by anti-Semitism,” he said.
As for the most controversial member of the panel, Tlaib said, “Tell everybody, I don’t hate you. I absolutely love you. If anybody comes through my doors or through any forum to try to push anti-Semitism forward, you will hear me being loud with my bullhorn to tell them to get the hell out.”
Tlaib also pushed the message that anti-Semitism has no place in justice movements, and cried when talking about tensions between communities.
Prior to the panel, Beinart wrote an essay explaining why he was participating and defending the choice to include non-Jewish panelists.
“When justifying his reliance on non-Jewish sources in his philosophical investigations, Maimonides argued that ‘one should accept the truth from whatever source it proceeds,'” Beinert wrote. “That principle remains correct today. What matters is not whether Hill, Tlaib and Ransby are Jews but whether they have something valuable to say. I believe they do.”
A panel called “Dismantling Anti-Semitism: Jews Talk Justice,” with a lineup of Jewish organizational sponsors and speakers, was held a day later as a response to the first event, and despite the ostensibly antagonistic tone, many of the same topics were discussed — sometimes with the same answers. Indeed, both panels were composed mostly of left-wing Jews talking about progressive spaces and inclusion.
Over the course of 90 minutes, Jewish panelists during the second event discussed how best to challenge anti-Semitism in progressive spaces, criticized the trend of anti-Zionist statements and actions by a number of social justice movements and argued that Jews, not gentiles, should be able to define anti-Semitism.
The panel was hosted by the Combat Anti-Semitism Movement and the Tel Aviv Institute. Speakers included Hen Mazzig, senior fellow at the Tel Aviv Institute; Rabbi Sandra Lawson, associate chaplain for Jewish life at Elon University and a onetime Philadelphia resident; Arizona state Rep. Alma Hernandez; Mahrinah Shije, executive director of the Pueblo Development Commission; and Ashager Araro, founder of Battae, an Ethiopian Israeli heritage center.
Questions for the diverse panel focused on anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism in social justice and progressive movements, whether Zionists are excluded from progressive spaces, legitimate versus illegitimate criticism of Israel, anti-Semitic statements from the Black community and whether the idea of white privilege in the Jewish community could be reconciled with threats from white supremacists.
Rep. Hernandez, the first Jewish Mexican American to win elected office in U.S. history spoke both as a Zionist and a proud progressive. “I don’t think I should have to leave and check one or the other at the door when I’m trying to be supportive of a movement,” Hernandez said. “Supporting Israel is just something that I’m not willing to compromise on.”
“I think that for us, it’s just so harmful and it causes us real distress to feel like our identity is being challenged and we have to choose between our progressive values and our fight against anti-Semitism,” Mazzig said. “It’s just disheartening.”
Ultimately, panelists agreed, criticism of Israel is not the problem. But, they argued, Jews should be allowed to define anti-Semitism, including when it overlaps with criticism of Israel, and the problem arises when people deny Jews the right to self-determination.
“It’s OK to criticize Israel,” said Araro, a Black Ethiopian Jew. “People who follow me over on Facebook and see my Hebrew posts know that I criticize Israel. It’s OK and it’s legitimate and this is what makes Israel a vibrant democracy.”
“But saying that we are the only people who are not allowed to have self-determination — this is anti-Semitic,” she added.
Moderator Natasha Kirtchuk, a Tel Aviv journalist, also asked panelists to contend with the existence of white privilege in the Jewish community. Lawson, a Black queer rabbi, defended discussions of white privilege, and explained how the definition of whiteness in the U.S. evolved over the years to include more ethnic groups, including Ashkenazi Jews.
“Jews who benefit from white privilege or Jews who present as white can be white and also suffer from anti-Semitism at the same time. Both of those things can be true,” Lawson said. “Which means, yes you could be white, and at any point in time that whiteness can be taken away because you’re suffering from anti-Semitism.”
Ultimately, anti-Semitism is not a right or left issue, Hernandez said. She’s seen it on both sides of the aisle, and it’s the same rhetoric. But it’s also not an issue that can be easily grouped with other forms of discrimination or marginalization.
“I wouldn’t want to compare it to any other hate or discrimination that goes on in the country,” Hernandez said.
“ … You can’t compare people’s struggles, and I don’t like when people do that. We need to be able to give everyone their own opportunity and space to share their stories.”
Several guest speakers and panelists emphasized the importance of education for addressing anti-Semitism.
“A lot of things start with educating,” said Anila Ali, president and founder of the American Muslim & Multifaith Women’s Empowerment Council. “We need our Jewish friends to come out there, join us and help us educate our masses that are here, that want to learn. They don’t know the difference, and there are stereotypes, unfortunately really toxic ones, that have been going around … So we have to challenge that.”
Lawson noted that anti-Semitism is so ingrained in American society that many people are unaware of it, and it takes work to help them learn why a stereotype or a trope is harmful.
“There are differences between just outright hate and outright ignorance,” Lawson said. “I’m not interested in having conversations with people who want to hurt me. I am interested in having conversations with people where we’re moving towards the same goal and they just may not have an understanding of history.”
As the panel took place during Chanukah, panelists and guest speakers also offered a parting Chanukah wish.
“Chanukah was a revolution. It was a revolution that renewed our people,” said Shije, who is both Jewish and Native American. “And I think, in our own lives, we all can find ways that we can replicate those revolutionary acts and that we can take efforts to renew and restore ourselves as the Jewish people and our place within the rest of the world.”
“My hope is that we as the Jewish community will start listening to everyone, allow representation to everyone, and make sure that no Jew feels left behind,” Mazzig said. “And that we’ll fight anti-Semitism until it’s over.”
To watch the first panel, click below:
To watch the second panel, click below:
Additional reporting by Ben Sales for JTA and Liz Spikol