This week, large-scale protests in support of Palestinian rights have unfolded across the United States and around the world. An overdue narrative shift is occurring across broad sectors of U.S. society, including within the American Jewish community, as more leaders and individuals are gaining the confidence to name that the deadly bombing of Gaza by the far-right Israeli government, violent clashes between Israeli Jewish and Palestinian vigilante mobs in cities across Israel, and other flashpoints in Israel/Palestine is a result of decades of Israeli occupation, apartheid, and dispossession of the Palestinian people, and to take action against US support for these injustices. Until these fundamental injustices are addressed at their root, a meaningful, lasting and just peace in Israel/Palestine will not be achieved.
At the same time, an uptick in antisemitic incidents in the US and around the world has generated fear across Jewish communities. Demonstrators have assaulted Jewish patrons at a restaurant in Los Angeles, thrown an explosive firework in the heavily Orthodox Diamond District in New York City, yelled antisemitic slurs in a Jewish neighbohood in London, and more, while synagogues were vandalized in Skokie, Illinois and Tucson, Arizona in the same week.
These and other acts of antisemitism are inexcusable, and deserve to be condemned in the strongest terms. The overwhelming majority of leaders, participants and organizations involved in recent Palestine solidarity demonstrations shun such behavior as radically contrary to basic movement values of dignity, respect for humanity and opposition to bigotry in all its forms. More than ever, the movement for Palestinian rights foregrounds a fundamental distinction between the actions and policies of the Israeli government and the ideology of Zionism on the one hand, and Judaism and the Jewish people on the other.
Antisemitism can manifest as a political ideology that scapegoats Jews, the image of a Jewish conspiracy, or stand-ins for these, such as George Soros, the ‘Zionist cabal’ or other tropes, as the illusory root cause of the world’s problems. To those eager for answers in times of tumult and unrest, it pretends to offer a simple explanation- “it’s the Jews”- to a range of social or political phenomena, from economic inequity and exploitative landlords, non-white immigration and social movements like Black Lives Matter, and more. While these conspiratorial worldviews are most organically rooted in far-right, ultranationalist movements, they can appear across the political spectrum, including in a range of positions related to the Israel/Palestine conflict.
When a protestor attacks a Jewish person, or a Jewish institution such as a synagogue, as an expression of outrage against Israel’s oppression of Palestinians, such an act distracts attention away from the root forces responsible for upholding oppression in Israel/Palestine. These include systems and structures of apartheid, imperialism and settler-colonialism; ideologies of ultranationalism, Christian Zionism, and varied expressions of political or religious Zionism in Jewish communities; weapons manufacturers, border security firms, and other corporate profiteers; the far-right, xenophobic Israeli government, and allied exclusionary nationalist political leaders and movements in the US and around the world; and more.
Acts of violence against Jewish communities and institutions, which sometimes occur during moments of widespread protest against Israel’s oppression of Palestinians, help illustrate how dangerous and misleading this false power analysis can be. Outrage is misdirected onto Jews as Jews, in a vicious act of bigotry which does nothing to challenge injustice. A similar dynamic can occur if the ideology of Zionism, or the policy or action of the Israeli government, is caricatured using hyperbolic, conspiratorial framing as a demonic, shadowy force responsible for the world’s evils, or with imagery of classical Christian antisemitism such as the blood libel.
With these and other antisemitic forms of anti-Zionism, one ceases to grapple with the concrete conditions, historical and political context of Israel’s oppression of Palestinians, and shadowboxes instead with phantoms drawn from the deep wellsprings of the antisemitic imaginary. This in turn disorganizes movements for justice by misdirecting focus and energy away from the root causes of the conflict, and exposes principled activists, especially Palestinians and leaders of color, to cynical and bad-faith smears from the Right.
Of course, many criticisms of the policies and actions of the Israeli government, or the ideology of Zionism, are not antisemitic. With recent interventions like The Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism, scholars have helpfully worked to illuminate these distinctions.
On May 21, Palestinian activist Yousef Munayyer wrote that “what separates our struggle for freedom from Zionism is it is about securing our rights by not denying them to others. Anyone in solidarity with us must model that.” Indeed, our liberation movements must continue to recognize that antisemitism, Islamophobia, anti-Palestinian and anti-Arab racism, anti-Blackness, and other forms of oppression are interconnected, and must be dismantled together. In a similar vein, Jewish organizer Sophie Ellman-Golan wrote that “Jewish safety & Palestinian freedom are not opposing causes,” and it is only the Right which benefits from “pitting the causes of Palestinian freedom and Jewish safety against each other.”
While our voices remain loud and clear against the continuing injustices unfolding in Israel/Palestine, progressives must also make continually clear that antisemitic rhetoric or violence has no place in our movements. We must reject any attempt by the Right to use these isolated incidents to smear our movements or leaders as antisemitic, or to divide us in any way. We must also resist initiatives, in moments like these, to bolster the national security state or forces of racist policing, which harm justice movements, Palestinian, Arab, Muslim communities and other communities of color, including Jews of color. Only by standing all together can we all get free.