I Can’t Stop Talking About Antisemitism

Every Friday, I touch base with various family and close friends to wish them a Shabbat Shalom. Last week, in conversations about the week that was and the week to come, I mentioned that I’d be speaking at Temple Emunah in Lexington, MA this (past) Sunday. More than one person replied: “What’s the topic? Antisemitism?”

Indeed it was.

Antisemitism is the topic I can’t stop talking about these days. Events this week reminded me that I’ve been talking about antisemitism for over thirty years; and that a particular experience back then informs my understanding of antisemitism until this day.

In the summer of 1991, I was expelled from a student group because I was a Zionist. As a Mexican-American Jew I had been active and welcome in the United States Student Association Latino Caucus. But at a national conference in Milwaukee, other caucus members, in particular a Palestinian graduate student from San Francisco State, demanded that the Latino Caucus be excluded from a Third World umbrella caucus unless I was expelled. There was a long, painful meeting of the Latinos in which I was given the opportunity to renounce any support for the existence of the State of Israel. I, of course, could not do that. And so, to maintain their place in a larger network, they voted to expel me.

This week in Boston we saw radical anti-Israel activists pursue a social media effort to prevent mainstream Jews from supporting a candidate for mayor of Boston. BDS Boston has been at this for a few weeks now, and they were openly talking about how “sinister” “Zionists” are using their money to manipulate progressive candidates.  We called it out, saying that “accusing Jews in Boston of a ‘sinister’ plot to brainwash candidates re Israel, or any issue, is nothing more than a dangerously offensive conspiracy theory.” Others did too, including ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt, who called it “ugly, unsurprising #antisemitism from the BDS movement.”

The very next day, news broke that the local DC chapter of the Sunrise Movement, a climate change activism group that is increasingly influential on the left, had withdrawn from a voting rights rally because they would not participate in an event with “Zionist organizations” including specifically the National Council of Jewish Women and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.

Hadar Susskind, CEO of Americans for Peace Now (probably the most respected progressive Zionist pro-peace group in the country), said it best:

“This is not boycotting the ZOA [Zionist Organization of America] or AIPAC or even [Americans for Peace Now]. This is boycotting groups because they are Jewish and state a general…support of Israel, which is the position of 90% of the American Jewish community…To say that any group that is in any way supportive of Israel should be excluded from our civic life is unacceptable.”

In my experience, the campaign to erase Jews from progressive spaces has been going on for at least thirty years. The graduate student who objected to my presence three decades ago is now a professor and has had a hand in the cancellation of at least one Jewish academic in the Bay Area in recent years. It is, however, getting worse. Much worse. It has transformed from a few below-the-radar incidents to a form of acceptable behavior in some mainstream spaces. “Acceptable” in that no one outside the Jewish community has called out BDS Boston. Even more disturbing,  the leftist organization Mass Peace Action, which is treated credibly by some elected officials, has even rallied to their defense. “Acceptable” in that eight of the nine members of Congress endorsed by the Sunrise Movement, including two from Massachusetts, have not – at this writing – responded to media inquiries inviting them to reject this antisemitism by their ally’s chapter.

Last Sunday I reminded that congregation in Lexington of something I have said repeatedly in recent years: It’s not our job as Jews to defeat antisemitism. Antisemitism is a constant of Western Civilization, the ever-evolving vehicle for defining what it means to belong to this civilization, by defining the “other” within, i.e. the Jew, as something else. Jews can’t defeat it, and we delude ourselves when we say we can. Rather, it must be the work of faith and civic leaders beyond the Jewish community – our elected officials, our Christian neighbors, and others – to eradicate this virus.

What is happening in America right now is not just a crisis for Jews. It is a crisis for this nation as a whole; it is an assault on the very thing that makes us all Americans.

It is, however, our job as a Jewish community and as individuals to insist that only we get to define this experience, our oppression, for ourselves; as is the right of every oppressed community. And, it is our job to tell our neighbors how we are experiencing antisemitism. How it threatens us. How events like this week’s, and their silence in the face of them, makes this nation a little bit more dangerous and a little less welcoming for us today than it was just last week.

So, no, after thirty years, I still can’t stop talking about antisemitism. But I also am not defined by it. I am defined by my commitment to building a vibrant Jewish community that lives our values and advances them in the world. I am, though, also helping my community to stand up and articulate our experience of antisemitism, and to challenge our neighbors to be better in confronting it.

About the Author
Jeremy Burton is the Executive Director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston (JCRC), defining and advancing the values, interests and priorities of the organized Jewish community of Greater Boston in the public square. He has been published widely, including in the New York Jewish Week, the Jewish Forward, Zeek, Sh’ma, and the Washington Post: On Faith. The JTA included him in their 2010 “Twitter 100” list of the most influential Jewish voices on Twitter.
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