Opinion: We Can't Let Right-Wing Hypocrites Weaponize Anti-Semitism

We know why Senate Republicans made a pro-Israel resolution their first bill of 2019 — and it's not because Middle East policy is their top concern.

I propose a peace treaty. Not between Israelis and Palestinians – that’s not for me to decide. Instead, I’m calling for better terms among American progressives. Between liberal Jews who see anti-Semitism resurgent and often hear it in criticism of Israel, and those on the emergent left for whom Israel is a US-backed violator of Palestinian human rights.

We’ve spent the last week hitting each with sledgehammers, on Twitter and in Congress. This time it was sparked by Ilhan Omar’s tweets. But we’d be foolish to think there won’t be a next time.

The basic terms of this peace deal are pretty simple. Progressive Zionists like me must do more to oppose the Occupation, criticize Israel over violations of Palestinian human rights, and call out Islamophobia. Sharper critics of Israel must get more vigilant about combating anti-Semitism, and make more room on the left for those who support Israel’s right to exist.

It’s no secret why we need this truce: right-wing hypocrites have found a way to exploit our fault lines.

Senate Republicans chose to make their first bill of the year a pro-Israel resolution, and it's not because Middle East foreign policy is their top priority. And it’s definitely not because they genuinely care about anti-Semitism. Donald Trump, Kevin McCarthy, and Steven Scalise foam at the mouth about Ilhan Omar. But they have not apologized for their own anti-Semitic tweets, attending white nationalist gatherings, finding good people among neo-Nazis, or for providing the xenophobic source material that was on the lips of the Pittsburgh mass murderer when he killed 11 of our people last fall.

The right wants progressives fighting with each other and boy, are we good at it. And we only need to look across the pond to the British Labor Party to see how easily this can reach crisis levels.

As a progressive, Jewish, Democratic elected official, I’ve found these fault lines challenging to navigate. So I’ve often kept quiet. Why take the risk of alienating allies to my right and to my left, on an issue where I will have little if any impact?

But if the partners of neo-Nazis are going to weaponize anti-Semitism for political purposes; if the place for progressive Zionists on the left is at risk of disappearing; if the urgent cry of Palestinians for fundamental human rights is going to be labeled anti-Semitism; if Jews and our allies, especially people-of-color, are going to be divided when we need an informed solidarity more than ever? Well, it’s time to find more courage.

My own Jewish and progressive identity is deeply rooted in the history of Jews who fought for equality as religious minorities in the societies where they found themselves, and forged solidarity among those struggling against oppression. Our son is named for Marek Edelman, one of the leaders of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, and also a Bundist (Jewish democratic socialists committed to the diaspora). That history is at the core of the work I do every day here in the US, pushing our country to confront its sins and live up to its promise.

As a diaspora Jew, I strongly support Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish, democratic state. I find meaning in the story of our people, our survival through centuries of oppression, and the complicated return to the place our story started. The words of Israel’s Declaration of Independence speak to me from 1948: a state “open for Jewish immigration and for the gathering of the Exiles … based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel” but also one that would “ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex.”

Inspired in part by those very words, I hate the occupation. Denying Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza the fundamental right to vote for the leaders of their nation-state, while keeping them under military rule with daily violations of their human rights, has deeply corroded the ability of Israel to be the place its founders longed for.

But I strongly disagree with those who jump from demanding an end to the occupation to calling for an end to the Jewish state itself. I oppose the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement against Israel not because of its tactics – of course BDS supporters have the right to this form of peaceful protest – but because its core platform is incompatible with Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state.

It is possible to engage in BDS, and even advocate a bi-national state for Israelis and Palestinians, without being anti-Semitic. My own Brooklyn synagogue includes Jewish anti-Zionists who I know would put their bodies on the line for the Jewish people in times of danger. And when anti-Semitic vandals desecrated the cemetery in St. Louis where some of my relatives are buried, Linda Sarsour, a Palestinian-American leader and BDS supporter, mobilized immediately to raise funds from Muslims across the country to restore it.

But it is also true that there are real anti-Semites who share those views. So if you are going to oppose our people’s right to our homeland, within living memory of genocide against us, you should do it with real care. And if Israel’s is the only nationalism you spend time opposing, at a moment when Jews are experiencing a rise in hate crimes in the US and around the world, don’t blame us for wondering what that’s about.

So, allies, here’s my proposal:

I’ll get louder about opposing the Occupation. Progressive American Jews who consider themselves both Zionists and human rights supporters have a responsibility to be more fearless advocates for the self-determination and human rights of Palestinians. I know I have not always lived up to it. And of course I will continue to call out Islamophobia and stand with my Muslim neighbors.

In return, will you be more vigilant in rooting out anti-Semitism, on the left as well as the right? You could use this guide for telling anti-Zionism from anti-Semitism by Rabbi Jill Jacobs, or this manual on understanding anti-Semitism from Jews for Racial and Economic Justice. Will you make a little more room on the emergent left for those who do support Israel’s right to exist? One good starting-place is Peter Beinart’s recent letter to young anti-Zionist Jews.

We’re not going to agree with each other about the terms for peace between Israel and Palestine, and those differences will cause real pain for many of us. But with more honest dialogue, some critical self-reflection, and less Twitter feuding, we could forge stronger solidarity across these disagreements.

We’re going to need it, if we want to have any chance to succeed in our shared fight against hypocritical right-wing authoritarians, white supremacists, anti-Semites, Islamophobes, and hate-filled murderers. And against climate change and income inequality, too.

Brad Lander is a member of the New York City Council, and the board chair of Local Progress, a national network of progressive local elected officials.

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