The left’s rising hostility toward Israel has alienated many Jews, but progressives want the Jewish community to put aside its misgivings and present a united front against what they see as a greater threat: President Trump.
At a Tuesday night forum called “anti-Semitism and the Struggle for Justice,” an unlikely panel of four Israel detractors, led by Palestinian-American activist Linda Sarsour, argued that Jews need to stop labeling foes of Zionism as anti-Semitic and join the left in fighting the Trump administration.
“We are now living under fascism. That’s what I believe, and we need all hands on deck,” Ms. Sarsour told the crowd of about 500 at the event, hosted by the New School in New York City.
Does that mean that progressives are ready to tone down their scathing denunciations of Israel? Not really.
Forum panelist Lina Morales, a coordinator of Jewish Voice for Peace and a self-described “passionate anti-Zionist,” compared Israel to a Netflix series about a fictitious Nazi takeover of America.
“I honestly consider Zionism to be, like, of ‘The Man in the High Castle’-like dystopia of Jewish history,” said Ms. Morales. “Like, it’s just so bad. It was a mistake. It has led us down a dangerous and horrible road. And it’s difficult to sort of look at your own people and see a lot them supporting this idea that’s very oppressive and very wrong.”
The panelists, three of whom are Jewish, said they have fought discrimination against Jews but worry that “false” and “inflated” accusations of anti-Semitism have hobbled the progressive movement.
“The truth is, I’m angry. I’m angry at profound hypocrisy of the institutional Jewish community,” said Rebecca Vilkomerson, executive director of Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP). “If the past year has taught us nothing else, it should have taught us that loving Israel does not mean you love Jews.”
She pointed to what she called “an especially virulent, Trumpian form of Zionist anti-Semitism, when those who would defend Israel’s policies regardless of their devastating impacts on Palestinians align with those that espouse and advance anti-Semitism.”
The forum, part of a book tour for JVP’s recently released “On Antisemitism,” drew a backlash primarily over the participation of Ms. Sarsour, a leader of the Women’s March in January who has embraced convicted Palestinian terrorist Rasmea Odeh and recently suggested that Zionists cannot also be feminists.
Ms. Sarsour argued that Jewish progressives shouldn’t leverage support for Israel as a prerequisite for joining the social-justice movement.
“If you’re going to come to the movement with a condition, with the imposition that people need to know that you are a Zionist and a feminist and only under this idea that we have to accept you as a Zionist and a feminist because you want to impose that on everybody else in the movement, I’m just letting you know that’s just not how it works in the movement,” said Ms. Sarsour. “No one else does that. Just so you know.”
She also called for Jews to stop trying to shut down the anti-Israel Boycott, Divest and Sanctions movement; to refuse to align themselves with pro-Israel conservatives like Milo Yiannopoulos, and to recognize that Jews aren’t experiencing the same kind of “institutionalized” discrimination as are racial minorities and Muslims.
Leo Ferguson of the Jews for Racial & Economic Justice criticized “white Jews” for putting Israel ahead of issues such as “state violence, mass incarceration, deportation.”
“For the past couple of years, we’ve watched so many corners of Jewish institutional world smear Palestine solidarity activists, attack the movement for black lives, spend so much effort and energy trying to pass illiberal anti-American, anti-BDS laws,” said Mr. Ferguson.
The result? “While they were doing these things, the political right elected an actual white supremacist to the White House,” he said. “That is just how confused many of us have become about who is a real threat, who we actually have to fear, and who in fact our friends and allies really are.”
The forum went smoothly, with only a few interruptions by hecklers, but there was plenty of criticism afterward by Israel advocates.
Syracuse University associate professor Miriam Elman said the panelists created a sort of straw man by accusing their critics of conflating anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism.
“No one says that criticizing Israel — in the way state policy and the society of any other country can be subject to criticism — is anti-Semitic,” Ms. Elman said in an email to The Washington Times. “But denying Israel’s right to exist and denying self-determination to the Jewish people, while supporting such national aspirations for every other people on the planet, including Palestinians, is an anti-Jewish stance, as is the effort to redefine Judaism in such a way that Jewish peoplehood is excised.”
She said the panel, made up of “a group of provocateurs and self-promoting activists,” downplayed escalating anti-Jewish bigotry on U.S. college campuses, “where the problem is not coming from Trump or the alt-Right but from the progressive Left.”
Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, argued that anti-Semitism can be cloaked in anti-Zionism, pointing to UN’s “Zionism is racism” resolution of 1975.
“Those who claim to stand in opposition to all forms of bigotry but still demean and question the legitimacy of the Jewish homeland should own up to their own prejudices,” Mr. Greenblatt said in an op-ed for the Forward website headlined, “When Criticism of Israel Becomes anti-Semitism.”
Roz Rothstein, CEO of the pro-Israel group StandWithUs, called the event “a display of ignorance about Jewish communities, Zionism, and anti-Semitism.
“In this time of rising hate on both the far left and far right, JVP, Linda Sarsour, and those who exploit anti-Semitism to divide and score points against their political opponents are part of the problem,” Ms. Rothstein said in a statement. “What we need instead is accountability, unity, and an uncompromising fight against hate on both sides of the political spectrum.”
The forum took place on the same day as the U.N.’s commemoration of the 70th anniversary of Israel, featuring Vice President Mike Pence.
“Under our administration, America will always stand with Israel,” said Mr. Pence.