Naya Lekht

The Sound is Loud and Clear: Will Jews Listen?

The book jacket of David Baddiel’s new must-read Jews Don’t Count reads: “How identity politics failed one particular identity.” In it, Baddiel details the ways in which Jews, despite marching for every minority, have been jarringly left out, at times even kicked out of progressive spaces.

Not weekly, but daily news breaks out of a new progressive movement that makes it their business to shout from the rooftops that “Zionist are not welcome.” The latest iteration of this discrimination comes from Sunrise DC, a group of young activists who seek “to make climate change an urgent priority across America.” The group drew negative attention from pro-Jewish advocacy groups who were alarmed at the statement put forth by Sunrise DC:

“Sunrise DC is committed to the statehood for the people of DC. This is a matter of self-determination… As such, we are declining a speaking slot at the Freedom to Vote Rally—Rally at the Finish Line due to the participation of a number of Zionist organizations in the Declaration for American Democracy coalition. This includes the Jewish Council on Public Relations, the National Council of Jewish Women, and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.”

For any Jew, this statement should ring in our ears as it comes from the chambers of history, of centuries of alienating, delegitimizing, and demonization the Jew. The irony is that the groups mentioned are by and large, progressive Jewish groups who themselves feel uncomfortable identifying as Zionist. Mission statements from each organization reveal that none self-identify as Zionists. This, then, brings us to the crux of it all.

In the United States of America, Jews are categorized as a religion; in the Soviet Union they were seen as an ethnicity; and in Nazi Germany they were an impure race. This is not to equate the governments of current and past regimes, but to show that if we do not define who we are, others will absolutely do this for us. Put differently, no matter how many times the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism or the National Council of Jewish Women beat themselves in the chest, proclaiming themselves to be not Zionists, for non-Jews, Jews will always be connected to the State of Israel. Indeed, after publicly disinviting these Jewish groups, Sunrise DC continues to explain their reasoning: “Israel, in its occupation of the land of Palestine and its people, has continued to engage in violent, oppressive tactics.”

The fact that Sunrise DC has revealed themselves to be a Jew-hating movement is not new. Neither is Jewish activity in the progressive space. We are not living in unique times:

In the early 1910s famed American Jewish advocate and former Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, Louis Brandeis said, “To be better Americans, we must be become better Jews, and to be better Jews, we must become better Zionists.”

In his 2004 book investigating the condition of Russian Jews at the turn of the 20th century, The Jewish Century, Yuri Slezkine makes a powerful observation that Jews in the Russian empire and later in the Soviet Union “converted to the Russian faith” by becoming the most well-read readers of Russian literature. Slezkine relies heavily on the Russian-Jewish writer, Isaac Babel, and reads his fiction as testimonial to seeking entrance into Russian society.

Separated by the Atlantic Ocean, both Brandeis and Babel expose the Jewish condition outside of their ancestral homeland: a relentless desire to be accepted. For Brandeis, Jewish was a means to another goal. As one student explained, “what Brandeis is effectively saying is that in order to become a better basketball player, one must dribble; to be a better American, one must be a better Jew.” This statement, once pulled apart, reveals a deep wound: Jews in the diaspora desperately seek recognition and if that comes at the cost of their Jewish identity, so be it: Jewish is not sui generis.

It all makes sense—the countless invocations of “as a Jew I march with BLM:” “We know that as Jews we must seek freedom and safety” and as such “support the Black-led movements of this country.” These countless calls of “as a Jew” uncover that like Brandeis and Babel, the Jewish identity is a means to something else.

I want to shake my Jewish family and say, “but why must you sacrifice your people to liberate another? Why must it come at a cost to your people?”

But there is a larger truth here too. The issue is not only that Jews are no longer welcome at the progressive table, but that the table itself may be rotten. Just as the Jew is the proverbial canary in the coal mine, signaling a larger threat, the rejection of Jews from the progressive space, a clear discrimination and therefore manifestation of antisemitism, should ring alarm bells on the nature of this space.

About the Author
Naya Lekht obtained her PhD in Russian literature from UCLA. Naya writes on Russian-Jewish literature, the Holocaust in the Soviet context, and contemporary anti-Semitism. Most recently, Naya has joined as Director of Education at Club Z Institute.
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