By Laura Frank
The Jewish communities’ participation in the racial reckoning undertaken by our nation over the past year may be the most important social justice work we’ve done in the last half century. Since the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, Jewish communities, like so many others, have worked to understand the racism baked into our society and pledged to use our power to make our country more equitable. We’ve joined with other communities across our region to demand justice and opportunity for all and have forged new friendships and strengthened old alliances.
This past month, however, we’ve watched many of these relationships and partnerships deteriorate, or crumble altogether. It has been upsetting and painful to see many of our domestic allies and friends openly embrace anti-Israel, and increasingly anti-Jewish, platforms on social media and in public spaces. Watching their hateful words spiral into overt acts of violence and targeted aggression against Jewish Americans was an entirely predictable and avoidable consequence.
I’ve been engaged in Jewish advocacy long enough to know that the anti-Zionist movement never misses an opportunity to use the conflict to attack Israel. So, when Hamas began raining rockets down on Israeli civilian populations, it was foreseeable that propaganda against Jews would quickly follow.
Since Israel’s creation, its enemies’ efforts have moved from war and invasion to delegitimization and boycotts. For years, American Jews have often faced “litmus tests,” in which they must publicly renounce Zionism in order to participate in progressive activities and movements such as the Women’s March. But in the past few weeks, anti-Israel misinformation and distortion have escalated in the public discourse and the media, which has helped fuel an over 400% increase in antisemitic activities.
Most distressing of all is that these reactions have been spurred on due to a stunning failure of community activists and political leaders to adequately equate their words with the actions of their followers. It’s clear that it is now incumbent upon Jewish Americans, and our allies, to confront and correct the lies and falsehoods in order to defuse this new spread of antisemitism.
One such piece of propaganda, designed to draw parallels to European colonizers who sought to evict people of color from their lands in Africa and the Americas, is that Israel is a settler colonial state committing ethnic cleansing against the Palestinians. Jews originated in Israel, and have remained there in some form ever since. The Jews did not return to their homeland to colonize, but instead to save themselves from aggressions and evictions across Europe and the Middle East. In fact, only 31% of Israeli citizens are of European descent at all.
As to the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948, Israel was created pursuant to the UN’s plan for a two-state solution. While the Arab residents who fled Israel became refugees, the nearly 150,000 who remained became Israeli citizens. Today, Arabs comprise more than 22% of Israel’s population and hold high levels of employment in the government and the IDF.
Israel has repeatedly sought to negotiate an end to the hostilities so that Jews and Palestinians might live side-by-side in peace. But Palestinian leadership has rejected offers of statehood at least seven times since 1948. In the name of peace-building, Israel has handed the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt and later the Gaza Strip to the Palestinians, which resulted in a brutal takeover from Hamas. This resulted in hundreds of deaths of both Israeli and Palestinian civilians.
Another argument paints the Palestinian people as the oppressed and Israel as the oppressor, pointing to Israel’s powerful defense systems as an example of their superior power. But this argument fails to address why those defense systems are necessary. Israel, more than any other country in the world, has faced repeated attacks from its neighbors and terrorist organizations that reside among them. Not surprisingly, Israel has invested heavily in defense systems and security measures to protect its citizens, as all sovereign nations are entitled and have an obligation to do.
Finally, another pervasive argument is that Zionism is racism. Zionism rests on the belief that Jews, like any other peoples, should be allowed to self-govern within the land in which they are indigenous. But Zionism was never about having an exclusively Jewish state, in which persons who pursued other faiths would not be allowed to live, worship freely or have equal rights. The goal of those equating Zionism and racism is not to improve the situation of people of color in the land of Israel, but rather to deny the Jewish people their right to self-determination and their indisputable ties to that land.
This isn’t to say that all those who participated in anti-Israel demonstrations in recent weeks are antisemitic. In fact, it’s safe to assume that most are not. But what is clear is that bad faith actors, whose intent is to annihilate the state of Israel, are now seeking to build walls between Jewish advocates for Israel and their allies in the fight for racial justice here in the United States.
Jews have always been at the forefront of the fight for human rights and social justice. Israel was built on these very principles. We must consistently contest anti-Zionist misinformation, as we continue to fight for an equal and just society for all here in the United States.
Laura Frank is the director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia.