The alarming rise in antisemitic, often violent incidences in California, New York, Florida, Illinois and other locations throughout the United States and Europe — ignited by a conflict taking place over 7,000 miles away — is a cautionary tale for all thoughtful people, no matter where you may stand on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
As the Executive Director of Progressive Zionists of California (PZC) I am most concerned about a growing trend to condition the entrée and participation of Jews and friends of the Jewish community in progressive advocacy spaces based on a person’s position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
This is not a new phenomenon. We saw it with the Women’s March, the failed UK Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn, and perhaps most sinisterly with the state sanctioned antisemitic, anti-Zionist propaganda campaigns of the former Soviet Union.
In my own community in Northern California, two incidences of concern come to mind.
Firstly, last year when the horrific murder of George Floyd catalyzed a movement for justice, I attended a local march with my partner, Matthew — who is Jewish and wears a kippah. We went to greet friends and almost immediately, a white woman approached Matthew and exclaimed: “What about Palestine?!” Keep in mind that they hadn’t exchanged any words. The march was centered on George Floyd and the recent killing of Sean Monterrosa and other young men of color by Vallejo police.
When Matthew, visibly shaken, attempted to explain how harmful this was, her male friend accused Matthew of trying to silence criticism of Israel. Neither could understand that if you confront and hold someone personally responsible for the actions of the Israeli government simply because they are visibly Jewish, it is antisemitic.
Secondly, as the march that day reached its conclusion, we noticed a female participant wearing a hijab. Matthew invited her to take a picture with us. She replied that she would, but only if Matthew either removed his kippah or held a “Free Palestine” sign. He declined because for her, his acceptability was conditioned on where he stood on Israel and Palestine, though the two had never met or spoken before.
Since the recent escalation of violence in Gaza and Israel, the litmus testing of Jews has become even more fraught and consequential.
On May 20, 2021, Joseph Borgen, 29 years old, was on his way to a pro-Israel rally, similar to the one he had attended peacefully a week before.
Wore my yarmulke, wore my kippah,” he said. “I never made it to the rally. By 48th street I saw someone start chasing me from behind, and next thing you know, before I could react, I was surrounded by a crowd… they were making anti-Jewish comments.”
Some of Borgen’s attackers shouted:
“We’re going to kill you. We’re going to kill Israel.”
Borgen was verbally abused and beaten because he was visibly Jewish.
Time and again we are told by anti-Israel activists that anti-Zionism is not antisemitism, and that criticism of Israel is not antisemitic, and to say so is merely a bad-faith effort to silence criticism of Israel. And no matter how many times we confirm that even strong criticism of Israel need not be antisemitic, it definitely can be. Tragically, we are seeing frightening examples of this now.
As an elected assembly district delegate to the California Democratic party, there is an unofficial, private Facebook group where delegates can chat, plan, collaborate, and even argue about tough issues. When I say that I am both progressive and Zionist, some of my fellow delegates tell me that I cannot be both; that I must pick one side or the other, and if I am a true progressive, that side will be Palestine. One delegate told me that I must renounce my Zionism, and another that I must declare that Israel is an apartheid state. Here is what I want these delegates to know:
- As progressive Zionists, we fully support a Jewish and democratic state, with equality, opportunity, and security for all of Israel’s citizens.
- As progressive Zionists, we recognize that there are systemic injustices and human rights abuses in Israel that must be corrected, but they are not apartheid.
- As progressive Zionists, we stand shoulder-to-shoulder with our pro-Palestinian brothers and sisters for justice and self-determination for the Palestinian people.
Conditioning the worth of Jewish and other progressives based upon their position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was a failure for the Women’s March, the UK Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn, and it is a losing proposition in California Democratic Party.
The progressive choice is not playing one side at the expense of the other. The progressive choice is dignity, security, and self-determination for both Palestinians and Israelis for a peaceful future.
We needn’t agree on every issue to begin to engage. Coming together doesn’t mean we gloss over our real disagreements or empower clearly harmful ideologies. It does, however, mean we build relationships and let ourselves be changed by the interactions.