Reflections on Racism & Antisemitism
Last week, the Movement For Black Lives release a statement rejecting the racist targeting of Black leaders by the right. Jews For Racial & Economic Justice (JFREJ) endorses the efforts of the Movement For Black Lives to call out racism and defend Black internationalism, and we offer this reflection on the complexities of holding our leaders accountable while rejecting racist political attacks.
In recent weeks, a series of Black activists and legislators such as Angela Davis, Marc Lamont Hill, Michelle Alexander and Ilhan Omar, have come under attack for comments or views, that, while varied in their nature, were characterized as antisemitic in the press, online and elsewhere. At a moment when American Jews are facing white nationalist violence in their synagogues and the spread and normalization of antisemitic conspiracy theories, tropes and hate speech on the internet and in the White House, virtually all of our attention is focused on gaffes made by a handful of by Black people, primarily women.
In some cases these people have made genuine mistakes and apologized. In other cases, the accusations of antisemitism are wholly bogus. So why are we fixated on them, and why are these leaders punished to the degree they are, without opportunity for good faith or redemption that is truly proportional to the magnitude of the offense?
First, these mistakes have impact, and can sometimes feel especially hurtful when they come from our allies. When Jews are rightly concerned with questions about safety and solidarity, it can feel more shocking, and appear more dangerous when leaders we thought we could depend on show that they too can harbor misconceptions about Jews, or have internalized anti-Jewish tropes. If we are to successfully confront antisemitism, one of the things we must do is come to terms with its prevalence — it’s sheer normality — in our society. Anti-Jewish stereotypes and ideas infect our culture. None of us are immune — that includes Jews, and even our most visionary leaders on the left. All of us have internalized these ideas to one degree or another, which means it is our shared responsibility to root them out and neutralize their power to hurt us. At this moment our political leadership — both inside government and in social justice movements — is undergoing a sea change. A vastly more diverse group of people, representing far more communities, is taking the reins of power — something that is long overdue. And what comes with that is many more interactions and more proximity between constituencies that don’t really know each other yet — that may only recognize each other in terms of fleeting glances and tired stereotypes. This is a chance for all of us to learn and grow in so many ways. If we are to achieve a truly multi-racial, multi-ethnic, pluralistic democracy, that has yet to exist, we need to humbly celebrate the discomfort that comes with this process.
But there are other, more sinister reasons why we find ourselves in this cycle of controversies and attacks on Black leaders.
The public’s preoccupation with “left antisemitism” exists in part because of a deliberate project of the largely Christian political right (but one that does include some right-wing Jews) to divide the left, and to undermine our most effective movements and leaders by playing on the fears of white Jews. Note that the right does not attack black and POC conservatives — they attack black and POC progressives. It is a racist and antisemitic strategy to undermine the left. By targeting progressive activists and Democrats as antisemitic, the right hopes to force more centrist Democrats to disavow and condemn them beyond redemption, turning the left against itself. In addition, the right hopes to draw voters and donors away from the left. The right has also worked tirelessly — and shamelessly — to conflate legitimate criticism of Israel, and peaceful forms of political protest such as Boycott, Divestment & Sanctions (BDS), with antisemitism. The political right has developed a cynical strategy that is itself antisemitic as well as blatantly racist. And so far the strategy has been working, in part because it is unclear how to step out of the pattern. Many Jews know it’s happening, but the challenge of responding to antisemitism while avoiding these political traps is hard and unfair work. This is one of the symptoms of injustice against all people — it often forces a group to bear both the burden of the oppression and the burden of addressing it, at the same time.
Part of what makes this right wing campaign so successful is that is plays on our community’s weaknesses around racism and Islamophobia. We are witnessing the political dangers of white Jews’ preoccupation with “Black antisemitism.” Fueled by a complex history of red-lining and mass migration into and out of urban areas, a false narrative has developed that focuses on conflict between white Jews and Black non-Jews. The architects of this conflict (Ku Klux Klan terrorists in the South forcing African-Americans to flee to northern cities; antisemitic government and bank policymakers restricting Jewish home ownership), are, ironically, the exact same white supremacists who profit from it now when white Jews are preoccupied by real or perceived acts of antisemitism by People of Color. This false conflict obscures our enormous shared interests, erases Jews of Color, particularly Black Jews, and stokes both racism and antisemitism that serve none of us. In addition, it profoundly distorts the truth about where past responsibility for antisemitism lays, and who is weaponizing it today.
As JFREJ staff organizer Leo Ferguson wrote earlier this year, “…it was European Christians who invented modern anti-semitism, it was European Christians who carried out pogroms and authored the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, it was white supremacists who lynched Leo Frank and the white, conservative, Christian demagogues of House Un-American Activities Committee that hounded Jews out of public life in the 1940s and ‘50s. It is plain fact that white Christians aligned with nationalist politics have been the authors of virtually all violence against Jews in the West. It is also true that many Christians have been brave, unwavering allies to Jews over centuries, as was on full display at interfaith vigils across the country [after the shootings in Pittsburgh]. But without a doubt, it is ascendant white Christian nationalism that is the overwhelming threat to Jews in the United States today … despite the president’s every efforts to portray right-wing extremists as ‘very fine people,’ they committed 73% of domestic terrorist attacks between 2001 and 2016.”
Jews For Racial & Economic Justice (JFREJ) unequivocally condemns this despicable, racist and antisemitic strategy of targeting Black progressive leaders by playing on the legitimate fears of many in the Jewish community. We endorse the words of the Movement For Black Lives and the Midwest Jewish Women of Color Progressives Open Letter. The right has launched its most cynical attempt to divide our community yet.
But we have the ability to choose our own path. The overwhelming majority of Jews abhor the white nationalist right — why would we let them define antisemitism for us, or decide who gets to lead our movements? As a community, we get to set the boundaries of our discourse and hold people accountable according to the values that matter to us, not them. We will stand up for ourselves without tearing our leaders down. We’ll all learn and grow together so that we can better protect each other’s dignity while we fight for each other’s liberation. We’ll stay true to our own values of accountability, generosity, curiosity and transformation. We won’t let the right decide the content of our character or dictate the values of our community. We will build a movement where no one’s liberation takes a back seat, and no one is disposable, including our leaders.
This does not mean that we have to ignore incidents of antisemitism on the left. When someone makes a mistake we can hold them accountable, but we have to “call them in” in a manner that is proportional and informed by context. We have to allow our leaders to go through the daring, uncomfortable process of learning and evolving in public — something the rest of us get to do in the privacy of our own homes, surrounded not by Twitter trolls, but by friends who have our best interests at heart.
White Jews have to unequivocally reject the racist, disproportionate focus on Black and Brown people in the fight against the very real threat of antisemitism. But we can’t do this work alone. We also need our non-Jewish POC allies to call out and shut down antisemitism when it appears — whether in Trump’s tweets or within progressive spaces. The right wants to paint this as a conflict between “Blacks and Jews,” or between centrists and progressives, and instead we must show it for what it really is. Antisemitism is woven into the fabric of our society. Black people and white people, folks on the left and the right — they are all going to do antisemitic things, and that should make us sad and angry, but it shouldn’t shock us. However an attack by racists and antisemites on the right that uses Jewish pain and fear to divide and diminish all of us? That is shocking, and should be resisted at every turn.
If all of us are able to cultivate clarity about antisemitism — what it is, what it isn’t, and who’s responsible for it — we can beat our opponents at their own game. We have to stop allowing the right to define the boundaries of our discourse, our communities and our solidarity. If we do, we can shut down Trump’s latest assault before it goes any further, and emerge with a stronger, smarter, progressive movement that can fight for all of us and win.