Misleading, Narrowly Political Jewish Voice for Peace [JVP] Collection “On Antisemitism”

I am reading On Antisemitism: Solidarity and the Struggle for Justice, a collection of essays arranged and published by Haymarket Books in 2016 for the Jewish Voice for Peace.  This slim volume contains essays by such noted friends of the Jews as Omar Barghouti and Linda Sarsour and a forward by Judith Butler, who states forthrightly that JVP considers the Jewish tradition of social justice to be imperiled by the Israeli state. (x)

Dina Khalidi is here, too, the founder of Palestine Legal, normally a notoriously shrill BDS defender, whatever the local facts and circumstances, as well as British writer Antony Lerman, a pro BDSer, who has said for ten years that serious discussion of antisemitism — rational, objective, academically grounded — is nonexistent (it is only political). The political project of the book is to identify any talk of a “new anti-Semitism” as a nefarious effort to burden legitimate criticism of Israel with the label of bigotry and hatred. The whole discussion by scholars of a new antisemitism is presented here as a product of pro-Israel advocacy groups and multi-agenda American Jewish organizations purposefully creating a new framework for political and ideological reasons, aimed at recasting antisemitism as anti-Israelism. to use it as a bludgeon.

The great preoccupation of Butler, Barghouti, Vilkomerson, and most other contributors to the volume is how what they view as their legitimate criticism of the Jewish state is fraudulently called to account and censored when opponents cry antisemitism against it.  Most contributors see the idea of a new antisemitism, which views Israel as the collective Jew among the nations, as a political effort to suppress open criticism of Israel.  To their credit, most writers here think there is also a serious and growing problem of antisemitism around the globe, but the problem is to located primarily on the right, emanating from Eastern Europe or from the back benches inside the Trump Administration.  The Left is innocent of antisemitism altogether.

The main takeaway of this misguided, confused, and narrowly political book is in its unsupported assertion, when thinking about antisemitism, that Jews ought actually to be working primarily to blunt Islamophobia. The main purpose of the collection is not even to primarily address the new reality of far right antisemitism– the effort by white supremacists to project onto the Jews the symbols of a despoiling people who manipulate global change — but to assist people to distinguish between antisemitism (meaning that of the alt-right, white nationalist type) and the far Left’s anti-Israel criticism.

What does one learn reading through the full collection of essays? One learns that the Left practices a principled anti-Zionism which views Israel’s oppression of Palestinians not as a Jewish problem but through the structural lens of settler-colonialism, apartheid, and white supremacy. One learns from a series of writers identifying themselves as the products of hybrid identities that the Ashkenazi-led nationalist enterprise to create a nation-state for the Jewish people in 1948 was ethically wrong (really?!), and that the liberation of Sephardi and Mizrahi Jews today is dependent on the liberation of Palestinians — an interesting observation since Sephardi and Mizrahi Jews have formed the base support for the Likud coalition that has set the political parameters and reigning policies of the Israeli nation for the past forty years.

Finally, one also encounters the identitarian musings of several writers who are active in JVP and describe their subject positions as descendants of Ashkenazi Jews who intermarried with African Americans or Puerto Ricans. The consequence of such mixes seems always to be that the African-American or Puerto Rican part of the identity becomes a rod for bashing the Jewish part of the identity. Black tends to be right in these precincts, and Jews, are regretfully, thought about only or mainly as white.

Omer Barghouti’s essay in the collection, in particular, strikes this writer as a despicable and misleading screed, charging Israel with abusing the Holocaust and antisemitism to justify a doctrine of exceptionalism that normalizes Zionist ethnic cleansing.  Whatever the complexities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Barghouti now describes its sources as Israel’s deeper descent into the “racist abyss.”

“Israel, its lobbying groups, and the international Zionist movement have been aggressively trying to normalize and impose a new definition of antisemitism that encompasses anti-Zionism, criticism of Israel’s policies or laws, and advocacy of effective measures to hold it accountable to international law, especially through the BDS movement for Palestinian rights.”

This new antisemitism dogma is fraudulent, says Barghouti, and serves to stigmatize the BDS movement, acting to shut down dissent. Ben Lorber, the campus coordinator for JVP, follows, writing about a potent “back-lash machine” active on campuses pressing this new broadened definition of antisemitism and engaging in hasbara operations to repress both faculty and student proponents of BDS.

Nowhere do BDS efforts to shut down speakers from Israel or to isolate pro-Israel students on campus come in for similar critical discussion.

An effort to approach a definitional discussion of antisemitism ends the book in appendix form. There can be little mistaking the central thrust:

“Those seeking to maintain the status quo in Israel/Palestine routinely use false charges of antisemitism , in an attempt to silence voices critical of Israeli policies towards Palestinians.”

Nor can there be any mistaking first purposes when the discussion says nothing about Left criticisms of Israel that participate in classic global conspiracy theories, Jewish lobby stories, or blood libel child killing claims.

About the Author
Kenneth Waltzer is former director of Jewish Studies at Michigan State University and a progressive opponent of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement. He a historian of the Holocaust completing a book on the rescue of children and youths at Buchenwald. He directed the Academic Engagement Network 2015-2019.