The Problem With Singling Out Anti-Semitism on the Left

A sentiment I hear frequently articulated in some progressive Jewish spaces is that the left needs to be more concerned about anti-Semitism. This view posits that the left has not been sufficiently sensitive to recognizing and addressing Jewish suffering and anti-Semitism.

As a Jew who identifies as being part of the left, I have two main concerns with this formulation. For one, it is unclear who exactly is being referred to here (sometimes the description is “non-Jewish leftists”). Do people mean feminists of color who are organizing for racial justice? Prison abolition groups? Mostly white anti-racist groups? Immigrant rights organizers? Everyone in all those categories? I am not sure why the left, which has so many layers and dimensions to it, is lumped together as all being insensitive to Jews.

A second and bigger problem I have with this framing is why anti-Semitism is being singled out as a particular problem in cases where other injustices aren’t mentioned. I fully appreciate that these discussions come at a particular moment in which we are seeing an upsurge in anti-Semitism amongst white supremacists in this country. However, the way anti-Semitism is called out as a particular problem suggests that the “left” is more prone to being insensitive to anti-Semitism than it is, for example, to Islamophobia (or that it is more likely to lack compassion for Jews than for Muslims). What about classism as another of many examples of a real problem in some left spaces? Since the social justice communities that many of us are part of exist within the context of a broader society ripe with all forms of injustice, we will invariably see some, if not much, of that mirrored within our own spaces. Challenging these systems of oppression within our communities demands our attention, and this includes (but is not limited to) addressing anti-Semitism.

The arguments about anti-Semitism on the left are framed from a position of a commitment to racial justice — and I have no doubt that commitment is often true. But I believe that singling out anti-Semitism specifically in this way ends up feeding into a false and distorted narrative, which claims that nobody (on the left or otherwise) understands anti-Semitism or Jewish suffering.

It seems that there are a few things at work that promote this narrative. One is that, as the Palestinian and global call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) becomes more prominent and pervasive in social justice communities, and as Zionism becomes more fully recognized as one of the many injustices that needs to be challenged, supporters of Israel increasingly conflate anti-Zionism with being insensitive (or worse) to Jews and Jewish suffering.

This conflation is also true among some progressive and leftist Jews. Numerous groups and individuals may articulate strong opposition to the Israeli occupation of 1967, but are deeply uncomfortable with an anti-Zionist framework that addresses the injustices of 1948 (the Nakba, or the catastrophe that resulted in the displacement and expulsion of 750,000 Palestinians from their lands and homes before and during Israel’s creation).

There are also some Jewish progressive or leftist individuals and organizations that operate from a racial justice analysis and praxis that is only local or domestic, which excludes addressing Zionism as a form of racism; this contrasts with the many social justice movements today whose principles fundamentally connect the local to the global, compelling solidarity with Palestinians as integral to the work and ensuring that it is not excluded from racial justice spaces.

As there is a more widespread awareness and condemnation of the violence of Zionism and Zionist history in radical spaces, this sometimes plays out in false accusations of anti-Semitism or insensitivity to Jews and Jewish history.

Further, many of us in Jewish communities grew up learning that everybody, deep down, hates Jews and that we don’t fit in anywhere. There is certainly no shortage of examples throughout history of virulent anti-Semitism. However, of course, Jews are not alone in having faced unbridled hatred and enormous persecution at the hands of oppressors. I think in some Jewish communities, this learning has resulted in a privileging of Jewish suffering and a belief that nobody — on the left or right — really understands anti-Semitism. And, I believe, part of this framing is exacerbated by a discomfort among some progressive, white Jews that white Jews are being defined as “white” in activist spaces rather than as uniquely Jewish (that is, not really white).

Finally, as I mentioned above, we know there is an increase in anti-Semitism by white supremacists in this country as well as in other parts of the world today. And, at the same time, we also know that Jews (particularly white Jews) in the US do not experience the extreme structural forms of violence facing, for example, Muslims or Black people. However, I believe the fact of rising incidents of visible right-wing anti-Jewish hate has led some to claim that there is increasing anti-Semitism or anti-Jewish sentiment more broadly (e.g., on the left) that needs to be specifically centered as a problem.

For me, a more thoughtful response and framing would be the following: We — individuals and groups committed to challenging injustice and who identify as radical or leftist — always need to challenge ourselves from our own locations and identities about how we perpetuate or are insensitive to issues of, for instance, white supremacy or classism or Islamophobia or anti-Semitism or other oppressive systems that we oppose. That framing doesn’t erase anti-Semitism or minimize it. Rather, while recognizing and appreciating both commonalities and differences in the conditions and contexts facing different communities, it includes anti-Semitism but doesn’t exceptionalize it or categorize it as a unique problem more deserving of attention than other injustices needing to be challenged in our communities.

I believe those of us within Jewish social justice spaces who are concerned about anti-Semitism on the left would benefit from deep reflection about what it is we are centering and why. We should ask ourselves whose voices we are privileging, including the ways we are bolstering problematic narratives. Perhaps we can be more attuned to the specificities, contexts and frameworks propelling the multiplicity of movements for justice. This will be an ongoing learning process for us all, as we genuinely and compassionately join those committed to fighting for dignity for all our communities.