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Jewish Activists for Justice Must Not Ignore Palestine

Ignoring Palestine while fighting for social justice in the U.S. defeats the idea of true liberation.

Hundreds of people led by dozens of Jewish progressive organizations, synagogues and immigrant rights groups blockaded the entrance to the Howard County Detention Center outside of Baltimore, Maryland, on August 11, 2019, to protest the county's partnership with Immigration and Customs Enforcement and its assistance in carrying out deportations.

Taking seriously the principle that “Never Again” means never again for anyone, progressive and left-wing Jewish organizations have taken to the streets to vehemently oppose Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the concentration camps incarcerating thousands of migrants, and the grave injustices perpetrated by the Trump administration.

These Jewish groups and individuals have devoted countless hours to creating and organizing protests alongside immigrant rights and racial justice groups. The protests have spread to cities all across the U.S.

The Jewish groups that have been part of these actions — some of which I have been part of or worked with — embrace a range of political positions, including groups devoted to justice in Palestine. Yet, it seems that in some of today’s wave of protests, as has happened all too often, Jewish groups (including progressive ones) want to stay at arms-length from pro-Palestine groups and minimize their visibility.

We have seen the many ways in which social justice organizing in the U.S. is explicitly committed to making visible the intersections and connections between local and global organizing. For instance, the Movement for Black Lives’s powerful platform expresses a profound commitment to justice in Palestine, recognizing how inextricably connected that struggle is to the fight for racial justice in the U.S. The Movement for Black Lives articulates a vision of liberation that foregrounds solidarity with other communities across the globe facing structural violence.

A vibrant, left Jewish community is also committed to justice from the U.S. to Palestine. This community challenges not only inhumane U.S. immigration policies, but also Islamophobia, the so-called “war on terror” and white supremacy in the U.S. It is committed to standing firmly, and as an accountable partner, with Palestinians fighting for justice and recognizes that Israel — which purports to speak in the name of Jews worldwide — privileges Jews over all others. It understands that you can’t fight for one form of justice in isolation from others.

There is a long history within U.S. Jewish communities of trying to stifle, dismiss or delegitimize groups engaged in pro-Palestine organizing, including those Jewish groups that have organized in partnership with the Palestinian movement for justice.

Many Jewish organizations refuse to talk about the historic and contemporary injustices perpetrated by Israel against the Palestinian people. If they do, they insist that the critique must be couched in an “I love Israel, but …” kind of framework.

These community gatekeepers repudiate Jewish groups that support the Palestinian-led global call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions to hold Israel accountable for its violations of basic principles of human rights and international law. They dismiss groups like Jewish Voice for Peace that recognize that Zionism has privileged Jews for more than seven decades while imperiling the lives of Palestinians and their right to live in their homes and on their land.

Too often within Jewish spaces, the issue of justice in Palestine is framed as a “distraction” and “divisive” when it comes to “domestic” social justice organizing. In reality, this call for a big tent that puts our differences aside has never been directed at Jewish groups that support Israel, but rather, has served as a means of silencing and ostracizing Jewish groups that understand that racial justice in the U.S. and Palestine liberation are deeply connected struggles.

Some progressive Jewish groups that are part of today’s organizing in the U.S. increasingly express a commitment to the Jewish Labor Bund’s principle of doikayt. Meaning “hereness” in Yiddish, doikayt implies being present to organize alongside those in the communities in which we live. If we take this important principle to heart, we must also confront the fact that many U.S. Jewish organizations are specifically implicated in the occupation of Palestine through funding it, supporting it and helping to give it political cover. In fact, it is the essence of “hereness” to recognize that we must not only grapple with that reality, but also work to change it.

Recently, in a column in The New York Times celebrating the Jewish activism and meaningful organizing that has been happening, Michelle Goldberg describes today’s Jewish activists as the “new Jewish left.” While this very visible Jewish organizing is filled with enormous spirit and energy, framing it as the rise of a “new Jewish left” ignores a rich history of radical Jewish organizing, including the work of Jewish groups that have supported and worked for decades in solidarity with the movement for justice in Palestine.

As Jewish communities organize in the U.S., we need to insist that a visible commitment to one of the critical issues of our time — justice in Palestine — isn’t considered a “liability” or made invisible. Israel and mainstream Jewish organizations have pushed for, and claimed, unwavering support for Zionism and for Israel within U.S. Jewish life for far too long. The voices challenging that narrative are absolutely essential at this historical moment.

When we engage as Jews in challenging different forms of injustice, I believe there are critical questions to ask ourselves about the meaning and implications of our organizing: Do (and how do) our actions contribute to a broader movement for justice? Does our organizing exceptionalize Jews in any way? Who are our actions for, who are we accountable to, and whose interests are being served?

As Jewish groups have powerfully organized against, and demanded accountability from, institutions like Amazon, which facilitate grave injustices toward communities facing daily assault in the U.S., what does it mean if we choose not to hold Israel and its institutions accountable for grievous injustices, including through boycott? In the case of Palestine and Israel, we know that Israel’s apartheid system is upheld in part by U.S. Jewish religious, communal and political organizations that purport to speak in our name.

I honor the energy and great commitment and creativity of Jewish groups fighting to end the onslaught against so many communities in the U.S., such as the migrants and asylum-seekers being abused at the border. I also hope we will not participate in creating what’s considered an “acceptable” Jewish left that abandons Palestine and the Palestinian movement for justice. That’s not fighting for real liberation by any stretch of the imagination.

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