Progressive antisemitism

The session “Combating Anti-Zionist and Antisemitic Activism in Progressive Spaces” at the recent worldwide annual summit on antisemitism and hate caught my attention. The discourse about anti-zionism as related to antisemitism in progressive spaces is very real, also in the Netherlands. If I were to describe this in the most condensed way possible, these would be the stakes: progressives want to be able to criticize the politics of the state of Israel without being called out as antisemites. Jews want to be able to be Jewish without suffering constant antisemitism that comes with anti-Israel rhetoric in progressive spaces. At the core of this dynamic lies a complicated conflation between Jews and Israel, of which the title of the session was a perfect example in itself: anti-zionism put on par with antisemitism. 

I was in particular curious how the conflation dynamic functions within Jewish activist spaces, and to obtain more insight in how to productively and constructively attempt to untangle it. Even though the speakers had different opinions than I personally hold towards the meaning of the conflation, the bottomline of the conversation was meaningful: making steps to reduce antisemitism, and making sure progressive social justice is kept as focus.

People in general and by extension also in the progressive spaces have a significant lack of knowledge on antisemitism (and how it works) and on zionism (what it can signify to whom). This makes it difficult to confront antisemitic rhetoric and makes it impossible to include the term anti/zionist in any meaningful way in a conversation. Most strikingly to me however was the suggestion that there is also ignorance as to what it means to be a Jew. Often Jews are reduced to an assumed political position, or framed as a religion. That’s it. There is no knowledge about Jewish history, Jewish peoplehood, Jewish diaspora and its rich cultural diversity, Jewish languages and the manyfold persecutions of Jews, everywhere. This not only makes it hard for progressive Jews to be visible in activist spaces, but it also frustrates attempts to tackle the hard questions together. Hence: address the lack of knowledge first.

Knowledge within progressive spaces, however, does not come from a public, frontal personal confrontation. In a direct confrontation the space for rapprochement and understanding is lost: without context you cannot have a real discussion. The frontal confrontation – especially towards people from other minority groups – will end up reinforcing the notion that systemic power is coming down on other marginalized communities and that Jews are somehow siding with/are a part of these systemic powers.

To deal with antisemitism in progressive spaces, more private “one on one” conversations are needed. In these conversations, understanding has to emerge that erasing, excluding, dehumanizing Jews or pretending that our intergenerational trauma is not real, is exactly what racism is about. In this way we can create a levelled, contextual and safe space for actually taking on the harder conversations and our joint efforts to fight all forms of (systemic) racism and exclusion.  

I realize the immense work in front of us, progressive Jews. Having one on one conversations is hard emotional labour. And it is a lot to ask for. But as we are (mis)framed in a ‘progressive’ discourse that perceives Jews as white and privileged at best and as colonizer and oppressor at worst, this strategy will help us move forward productively and safely. As Jews cannot afford to remain stagnant or uninvolved in progressive spaces. 

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