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How Jews Became ‘Too White, Too Powerful’ for US Progressive Activism

The responsibility of Jewish power and progressive activism today must recognize both the privilege and powerlessness of our past while protecting our future
Dr. Sara Yael Hirschhorn is a member of the teaching faculty of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America as well as its Chicago Scholars Circle. She joined the faculty of Northwestern University in fall 2018 as the Visiting Assistant Professor in Israel Studies at the Crown Family Center for Jewish and Israel Studies, where her research, teaching, and public engagement activities focus on Diaspora-Israel relations, the Arab-Israeli conflict, and the Israel ultra-nationalist movement. Sara

How Jews Became ‘Too White, Too Powerful’ for U.S. Progressive Activism

First posted in Haaretz

The Women’s March anti-Semitism saga exposes the profound failure of identity politics and inclusion. We’re told we must ‘work through’ the pain of overt anti-Semitism, that we boost white supremacy and that we’re Zionist genocidaires.

Dogged by a year of allegations of anti-Semitism within the Women’s March, the grassroots protest that emerged in the wake of Donald Trump’s election, and recently dumped by a long list of major allies after a new set of accusations, some of its most controversial leaders have gone on national television to face their critics.

When the March co-chair Tamika Mallory appeared on the U.S. talk show “The View” she was blasted for attending Nation of Islam events and posting a photo of herself on Instagram with Louis Farrakhan identifying him as “GOAT” – the Greatest of All Time.

Mallory, who on multiple occasions throughout the ten minute interview repeatedly refused to answer the panel’s direct call to condemn Farrakhan’s comments – statements that compared “wicked” and “false” Jews to termites (she would say only that “it’s not my language”), she pushed back by claiming, “I didn’t call him the greatest of all time because of his rhetoric. I called him the greatest of all time because of what he’s done for black communities.” Ultimately, Mallory concluded of her activism work, “Wherever my people are, that’s where I must be.”

Who doesn’t love a man or woman of their people and a devoted custodian of their community? Countless protagonists of injustice have invoked their sacred and imagined communities to hurt and abuse others. That’s a slippery path that extremists know well and progressives should shun.

Donald Trump insists he is putting “America” first. David Duke claims he’s done great things for the KKK’s “white community.” Even Robert Bowers, the murderous perpetrator of the Tree of Life Synagogue massacre proclaimed that, “screw the optics,” he would kill to protect his white nationalist brothers and sisters.

The reprehensible words and deeds of Louis Farrakhan, an unrepentant anti-Semite and public figure, cannot be excused or justified for the sake of community building.

The Nation of Islam may be a significant religious and identitarian sect within the African-American community (its activities – such a prisoner rehabilitation programs and events such as the  Million Man March – have significance in building black identity and solidarity). But the Nation is also considered an “extremist group” by the Southern Poverty Law Center, hardly an organization known as a source of hostility towards the African-American community.

Farrakhan’s constant use of anti-Semitic rhetoric and “othering” as a way to create group cohesion and recourse to causing harm to other communities to bolster his own community’s “strength” can’t be an acceptable form of identity politics for the progressive camp.

It is clear, however, that community building within the progressive movement today comes at the cost of Jewish pain.

In recent years, progressive Jewish Zionists been effectively removed – either through deliberately exclusionary language, verbal violence or physical unrest from progressive activism.

For example, the Black Lives Matters platform required its supporters to back the assertion that Israel’s occupation of the Palestinians is a “genocide.” At the Chicago Dyke March, a queer Jewish activist waving a rainbow flag with a single Jewish star was told she was “making people feel unsafe…putting [others] in danger by being here.” At protests against Trump’s Muslim ban and family separation policies, Jewish groups such as Tucson Jews for Justice were berated, with other activists demanding they denounce the “genocide” of Palestinians as a pre-requisite for participation.

Jewish women identifying with Zionism have had their compatibility with activist feminist circles queried by Women’s March leaders such as Linda Sarsour, and Jewish progressives have even been the target of noisy boycotts for being “gentrifying Zionists” engaged in “woke-washing.”

The “othering,” harassment and expulsion of Jewish Zionists from the left is a long story dating back to the aftermath of the 1967 war. However, the progressive camp has aimed increasingly forceful attacks against American Jews who identify as non-Zionist and even as anti-Zionist. The target now seems to be Jews as a people – with no reference to an individual’s specific positions on questions of Jewish nationalism or Israel.

In particular, Ashkenazi Jewish activists have been categorized as “white Jews,” attacked by Mallory herself for “uphold[ing] white supremacy,” and accused of playing an ahistorically dominant role in the slave trade and mass incarceration in the U.S.

Further, anti-Semitism is no longer allowed to remain a distinct form of discrimination, but rather a lesser branch on the tree of general bigotries. Some even question whether anti-Semitism belongs in the family of prejudice at all and downplay its impact. Sarsour herself claimed anti-Semitism “impacts Jewish Americans, [but] it’s different than anti-black racism or Islamophobia because it’s not systemic.”

Jews are seen as too institutionally integrated, too successful a minority (itself a favorite anti-Semitic trope), or, in other words, too white (and therefore too much the beneficiaries of “white privilege”) for anti-Semitism to be taken seriously.

There are more than a few echoes of the Elders of Zion “over-powerful, over-represented” canard in comments attributed to Women’s March leaders regarding the participation of Jewish women – a critique of “too many” Jewish women wanting to participate in progressive activism! And the same “masters of oppression can’t complain about oppression” slur is used against Jews who stand up against the anti-Semitism they face

Sarsour, noting the Farrakhan issue had “suddenly” re-emerged after the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre, suggested blame was being redirected from Bowers the murderer to Farrakhan: “The deflection went to a Black man who has no institutional power – this is a feature of white supremacy.” Having name-dropped the ADL and Jewish journalist Jake Tapper as sources of the Farrakhan controversy, it’s hardly outlandish to imagine the “folks” Sarsour believes whipped this up – as agents of white supremacy – are Jews.

Hand-in-hand with the hyping of Jewish power comes the downgrading of the history of Jewish powerlessness.

The left seems increasingly tone-deaf to “Jewish trauma.” In a recent Facebook thread, Sarsour told a Jewish interlocutor upset about the Women’s March leaders’ Farrakhan links that she understood her “historical pain” and urged her to “share it” with the collective for the sake of “solidarity.” (Even though it seems unlikely that a Jewish woman ‘painsplaining’ in this identity politics space would be in any way acceptable to most progressives).

However, she added, “If you are comfortable, you are not in coalition,” asking the Jewish Women’s March members to “commit to working through the pain.”

Yet pain does not seem to be a two-way street. Jews who want to remain in solidarity within the progressive space seem to need to “work through” overt anti-Semitism while taking an outsized responsibility for white privilege, but other identitarian groups can trade in their own pain for political gain – even inflict harm upon others – for the sake of that same progressive space.

Identity politics have devolved into a kind of oppression Olympics where Ashkenazi  Jews, at least, because they “pass” as white and may be beneficiaries of white privilege, can never compete because their grievous historical traumas and present-day Pittsburghs have been rendered irrelevant.

How inclusive and welcoming coalitions are towards Jews have always been the canary in the mine of liberal democracies. The question of anti-Semitism in the Women’s march may well reveal the limits of liberalism within the movement, and the profound failure of identity politics to provide full inclusion of all groups.

While the agenda of the Women’s March and other progressive movements has always been empowerment, sadly, for much of modern Jewish history, the promise of full emancipation and truly engaged allyship within a broader community has often been elusive.

If other identitarian groups have decided to operate under the framework of “It’s good for OUR community,” it may be long past due to ask: “What is good for the Jews?”

Is it worth fighting to be included in asymmetric and even abusive coalitions of progressive “solidarity” when the price is fracturing our own community?  Wouldn’t it be better to seek tikkun olam within a framework that also takes our own concerns seriously, and build partnerships on our own terms?

Whatever path we may choose to pursue, the Women’s March anti-Semitism scandals also have much to teach us about the dangers of descending into our own parochialism and particularism. What is “good for the Jews” must also serve the greater good.

The responsibility of Jewish power and progressive activism today must be twofold: to recognize both the privilege and powerlessness of our past and present, while fiercely protecting the Jewish present and future.

You care about Israel, peoplehood, and vibrant, ethical Jewish communities. We do too.

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