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To Confront Antisemitism, Stand With the Oppressed, Not Today’s Pharaohs

Groups like the ADL actually add fuel to antisemitism by conflating it with critiques of Israel.

Members of Jewish Voice for Peace join activists shutting down traffic in front of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, while protesting President Joe Biden's continued support and funding for Israel's assault on Gaza, on February 7, 2024, in New York City.

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In a satirical Instagram post, musical theater composer Daniel Maté lamented that Jewish dissenters’ efforts to “increase antisemitism” by denouncing Israel’s abuses of Palestinians were “not really working.” Rather, he joked, they were sparking favorable impressions of Jews from the broader pro-Palestine solidarity movement. He then facetiously suggested a new tactic — to find Jewish billionaires to make demands of university presidents to shut down pro-Palestine student groups.

Besides simply being amusing, Maté’s Instagram actually reveals an important but rarely examined point: Namely, today’s Jewish dissenters are not only keeping alive a Jewish tradition of standing with the oppressed but have been far more effective than mainstream Jewish organizations in the United States at countering growing antisemitism.

Compare the overall approaches of the two groups. Consistent with its alarmist tendencies, Anti-Defamation League (ADL) Director Jonathan Greenblatt recently proclaimed, “Antisemitism is nothing short of a national emergency, a five-alarm fire that is still raging across the country.” Shamelessly, however, the ADL and other mainstream Jewish organizations add fuel to antisemitism by subordinating the struggle against antisemitism to advocacy on behalf of the state of Israel.

Rather than educate the public about the dangers of conflating Israel’s actions with Jews at large, these organizations do the opposite by framing virtually all criticisms of Israel as antisemitic. Featuring a new Israel-heavy definition of antisemitism adopted by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), establishment groups label antisemitic any Palestinian rights advocacy group which speaks of Israeli depredations, laments that Israel’s creation came at the expense of Palestinians, calls for boycotts or advocates for an alternative political system to Jewish hegemony. Depressingly, the U.S. House of Representatives just passed the Antisemitism Awareness Act, which mandates that the Department of Education adopt the IHRA definition to enforce anti-discrimination laws. Moreover, consistent with its prioritization of Israel advocacy, the mainstream U.S. Jewish groups like the ADL make common cause with individuals prone to antisemitic conspiracy theories, such as billionaire Elon Musk, who prove to be sufficiently “pro-Israel,” by validating dubious claims that phrases such as “from the river to the sea” amount to a call for genocide of Jews.

Jewish dissenters, by contrast, situate the growth of antisemitism in the rise of attacks on other vulnerable groups and urge a united front to “dismantle all systems of oppression.” Both Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) and the Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism (JDA), a document produced by critical Jewish scholars, reject the conflation of antisemitism with anti-Zionism and critiques of Israel. Such an approach, they point out, not only shields Israel from scrutiny, but erases the diverse views and experiences of Jews, demonizes Palestinian rights advocates and absolves “pro-Israel” reactionaries. At the same time, JVP and the JDA recognize and condemn all antisemitism, including if it is found in Palestine solidarity circles. JDA carefully distinguishes anti-Zionism, evidence-based criticisms of Israel, and boycotts from comments that employ classical antisemitic tropes in describing Israel, accuse Jews of dual loyalty and blame Jews collectively for Israel’s actions.

A similar contrast is found with regard to the post-October 7 setting. Mainstream Jewish organizations like the ADL and the American Jewish Committee ignore Israel’s devastation of Gaza, which, to date, has killed more than 34,000 Palestinians, including 14,000 children, and brought famine to much of the population. Instead, they feature Hamas’s killings of nearly 1,200 Israelis and taking of over 200 hostages; denounce any efforts to contextualize those attacks; and, with minor qualifications, maintain robust support for Israel’s devastating onslaught that arguably amounts to genocide.

Most dramatically, the ADL and allies have intensified the weaponization of antisemitism, especially on college campuses. It accuses student protesters of making U.S. Jews feel unsafe — avoiding the inconvenient fact that a sizeable number of the protesters themselves are Jewish — and implore universities to prevent demonstrations, lectures, films or other works of art deemed hostile to Israel. The ADL has gone so far to expand what’s coded as antisemitism to apply to rallies that feature “anti-Zionist slogans,” meaning virtually all protests of Israel’s Gaza offensive. It and others also continue to make common cause with the most intolerant figures in U.S. society. For example, at its March for Israel rally in November 2023, a coalition of Jewish establishment groups featured the antisemitic pastor John Hagee as one of its speakers.

Jewish dissenters, on the other hand, have responded with far greater nuance. Writing in the immediate aftermath, Jewish Currents Editor-in-Chief Arielle Angel observed that “many ardent anti-Zionist Jews found they could not join Palestine-solidarity protests because they needed something the protests could not provide, a space to grieve the Israeli dead.” Nevertheless, they understood that the October 7 attack was an outgrowth of Israel’s decades-long subjection of Palestinians, especially in Gaza, to oppressive conditions. Dissenters also appreciated that Israel would respond with devastating force, which would further Israel’s moral degeneration. They have, therefore, not allowed their grief to impede them from robust scrutiny of Israel and mainstream U.S. Jewish groups.

There has been a further dramatic divergence in response to the recent surge in campus encampments aimed at ending the complicity of their universities in Israel’s Gaza assault and broader subjugation of Palestinians over multiple decades. Mainstream Jewish groups demand that universities condemn and shut down such activities in the name of supposedly keeping Jewish students safe. Conversely, dissenters are enthusiastically joining the encampments to honor the Jewish legacy of social justice. Across the country, dissenting Jewish students have held Passover seders, joined by activists with Students for Justice in Palestine, to uphold the holiday’s commitment to liberation from tyranny. Ironically, a large contingent of militant “pro-Israel” Jews assumed the role of modern-day pharaohs by violently invading the UCLA encampment. Among the many victims of this assault were the numerous Jewish student dissenters. Sadly, the fear expressed by mainstream Jewish groups of Jewish students being unsafe came true. Yet the perpetrators were hardline Zionist Jews and the victims were the Jews of conscience.

Mainstream Jewish groups predictably reject these alternative approaches, claiming that they simply justify anti-Israel and anti-Zionist behavior. The ADL’s Greenblatt, for instance, vows the organization will not allow JVP to use its “Judaism as a shield,” while Zionist activists Gil Troy and Natan Sharansky aim to excommunicate Jewish dissenters as “Un-Jews.”

This intolerance is unconscionable. If we hope to reverse Israel’s escalating path of destruction and accompanying moral degeneration, reaffirm the proud Jewish social justice legacy and attach the struggle against antisemitism to a robust antiracist movement, then Jewish dissenters represent our best hope.

As we Jews observed Passover in April, two lessons are especially pertinent. One: We are not free if anyone else is oppressed. Two: We must never allow our own people to become modern pharaohs.

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