Aw boy. I really would have preferred to do a link round-up about the inherent hilarity of British English, or the awesome Chicago Mosaic Project, or Lindy West’s op-ed on defending free speech from trolls. Instead, I am here to talk about leftist, progressive and radical antisemitism and last weekend’s Chicago Dyke March.
Your reaction to this story depends a lot on what you believe happened. By some accounts, a group of Zionist infiltrators disrupted an explicitly anti-Zionist, pro-Palestinian march and rally by harassing other participants while waving Pride flags superimposed with the Israeli flag, all to stir up media attention with crocodile tears after. By their own accounts, three queer Jewish women, one of them Iranian-American, were ejected from a safe space after being aggressively interrogated on their political beliefs by both marchers and organizers when they showed up wearing either Star of David apparel or carrying flags featuring the Star of David, a symbol so intimately connected with Jewish identity that the Nazis used it to brand Jews during the Holocaust. Maybe it was all a miscommunication.
Chicago Dyke March is now organizing a self-care retreat to refresh after the trauma of being called out for antisemitic behavior, though they have deleted the comments section criticizing the fundraiser, which is going toward themselves rather than the causes they support. The sample letters provided to express and demand solidarity from other organizations also contain flat-out fictions linking the Jewish group A Wider Bridge to unnamed “Zionist organizations connected to hate groups profiled by the Southern Poverty Law Center.”
In defending their actions, Dyke March representatives and allies have made statements such as “[W]e need to be in control of our space just like you wouldn’t accept Nazis in your synagogue.” To compare Jews and/or Zionists to the people who destroyed Jewish populations to the extent that they only recovered to pre-World War II levels worldwide in 2015 is, in fact, textbook antisemitism. To insinuate that Jews are deliberately embedded fifth-columnist saboteurs out to undermine and disrupt your own work is classical racialized Jew-hatred going back to the Spanish Inquisition. And to insist that non-Jews are the arbiters of defining Zionism runs contrary to the foundational notion of relying on minorities to define both their own oppression and liberation.
Joel Finkelstein, blogging for the Times of Israel, defines Zionism thusly:
Zionism stands as the indigenous rights movement of the Jewish people, who constitute a historically dispossessed Middle Eastern ethnic group and endeavor to escape from white colonial supremacy and Arab colonial supremacy alike by returning to their native land: Israel.
For 2,000 years, Jewish prayer services have longed for a return to Jerusalem; archaeological evidence confirms an indigenous Jewish presence in the Levant going back thousands of years. Genetically, Jews are most closely related to Palestinians, Israeli Bedouins and Druze. Historically, Jews have never been “white” until very, very recently — even then, conditionally and largely in the United States, and even then, it had a lot to do with McCarthy-era conformism, trauma and opportunities for widespread economic advancement that only came with the G.I. Bill. American pro-Palestine activists tend to categorize Israelis as white European colonialist invaders, an echo of the Khazar theory that Ashkenazi Jews are all descended from converts and thus have no claim to Middle Eastern ancestry.
Israel, of course, is more than 50 percent Mizrahi, Jews from Middle Eastern and North African countries who were expelled to the point of extinction in ancient communities after state violence in the second half of the 20th century. (This goes directly against the claim that Ashkenazi/white Zionists somehow fooled nearly a million Mizrahim into leaving their homes just because. See also: the widespread notion that Zionism represents white supremacy, which white supremacists would surely argue against.) I’d argue that the only way you can understand Israel is as a nation almost entirely composed of refugees and their descendants. So, that’s Zionism.
Hashtags included in Chicago Dyke March’s statements include references to the genocidal “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.” (This chant means all the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea; the “will be free” part does not appear to leave room for Jews.) Read the Hamas Charter, which includes multiple pronouncements like “The Movement is but one squadron that should be supported by more and more squadrons from this vast Arab and Islamic world, until the enemy is vanquished and Allah’s victory is realized.” (Not so surprising that Wonder Woman actress Gal Gadot would hope for a Gaza free from Hamas.) So if Jews seem alarmed by Chicago Dyke March’s use of these tropes and slogans, I hope you can see why. As Tumblr user optometrictzedek writes:
You can’t use a symbol to mark us for genocide and then tell us we can’t use that same symbol to represent ourselves because it might offend someone
You can’t support White Supremacists tropes of antisemitism while calling yourself progressive
The one thing the far left and the far right have in common is making sure Jews have a place nowhere. And then you turn around and condemn us for having one place in the world to keep us safe. But that makes sense if you just want us all to die.
It was never about antiZionism. This is antisemitism. Period.
Myself, I wonder with whom anti-Zionist activists believe they’ll ultimately accomplish their goals, whatever they are, if not in partnership with Zionists. The vast majority of Jews my age I know believe in both the right of the Jewish people to live in peace, dignity and full self-determination and the inherent right of the Palestinian people to do the same. Making Jews of any nationality pass an ideological purity test to participate in any liberation movements simply isolates and ghettoizes those Jews who aren’t willing to put up with violence against their own identity. The Jews I know want to form partnerships to ensure justice for both peoples, despite becoming proxies for the very worst of a foreign government’s actions at any given moment they exist in the world.
What I don’t see among my own close cohort is Zionists who give Israel and the Israeli government some sort of free pass. That seems to be something more likely found among older generations, or Christian and right-wing Zionists. Israelis themselves could criticize their government vociferously enough to make a BDS supporter’s hair turn white. Most of all, we need to raise up Palestinian voices that ask us all to do better. Hiba Bint Zeinab, who is Palestinian-Lebanese, wrote a fantastic, nuanced Facebook post calling on pro-Palestinian activists to stop centering Israel in their activism:
I firmly believe that the kneejerk way the Palestinian Cause is held up like a trump card whenever convenient and the infuriating reverse exceptionalism with which the conflict is treated has been a firm factor in prolonging the crisis and exacerbating Palestinian suffering. I’m struggling to find the words for why it troubles me so much to see all these conversations stuck on questions of whether anti Zionism is anti Semitism because don’t forget Israel and what about accountability for Palestine.
Please. Please. Please try to understand that an anti-Zionist pro-Palestine liberation stance is not one that needs championing in the left, that nobody fucking lets us forget Israel when we try to talk about Palestine, and nobody stops talking about Palestine when anyone mentions Israel, and it hasn’t done shit for diaspora or territory Palestinians except turn us into a handy slogan.
Establishing a stance of basic advocacy for the rights and welfare of the Palestinian people is not what the discourse lacks, it is what the discourse needs to *move past* already. Everybody is well-versed and comfortable with the Israel Blame Game– it drowns out and supersedes everything else, and it’s everything else that Palestinian advocacy desperately needs.
The worst thing for me about this whole Chicago Dyke March incident (and others before it) is seeing my progressive activist friends utterly fail to recognize the libels, slanders and tropes that have been used to silence, reject and violate Jews for hundreds of years, if not more. Friends who fight honorably against anti-Blackness, Islamophobia, ableism and homophobia cannot spot antisemitism, especially not among their own colleagues and allies. Worst of all is when Jews are told to step aside and shut up, since they’re white, rich, privileged and in no way oppressed—a total failure of practicing the very intersectionality we all want to acknowledge. Our only recognized oppressions are, ironically, our intersectional oppressions, whether we’re queer Jews, Jews of color, disabled Jews, immigrant Jews or more.
This exhausts me, and it breaks my heart. I wish I could get my friends and fellows to understand that while anti-Zionism is not inherently antisemitic, it often doesn’t care too much when it is. The calling-out of antisemitism must not be more offensive than promoting antisemitism. It will take a lot of advocacy and a lot of work from both Jews and non-Jews to reach the kinds of understanding we crave. Until then, if any of the above is news to you, please start your education with a very simple list: “How to Criticize Israel Without Being Antisemitic.” I hope you really read it.
Graphic by hafetzhashud (Tumblr)