I feel like I’m in a permanent tug of war between my conservative and liberal friends, and at the same time, I feel like at any moment, I’m going to slip through a sheet of thin ice into the dark unknown below.
Right now, in the wake of recent events, including the neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville and the terror attack in Barcelona, as well as the ongoing rise in antisemitism on both ends of the political spectrum, there are two very specific things that are really doing my head in at the moment. And I can’t achieve any emotional reprieve from it, because it’s flooding my newsfeed and constantly popping into conversations.
The first is the level of binary thinking I’m observing. To put it simply, examples include, “you can’t be a Zionist if you didn’t vote for Trump”, or “if you denounce Nazism on the right, it means you’ve got your ‘lefty blinkers’ on”.
The second is the corollary of the first, which is that people are favouring political partisanship over actual values. In other words, people are starting to shy away from causes that in their hearts they would most definitely support, but feel that they would be somehow “tainted” by some of the unsavoury characters that have latched on to these causes.
Now neither of these mindsets are new phenomena. Furthermore, I know I’m in good company in feeling overwhelmed by the moral upheaval the world seems to be going through. So I understand that people are trying to make sense of it. World leaders being shy about labelling terror acts for what they are. Political correctness overshadowing common sense. The obsessive policing of people’s language rather than taking practical steps to tackle real life systematic and institutionalised bigotry. There is no denying that there is an upheaval in the current zeitgeist. This of course can be a good thing as we re-evaluate our behaviour and the way our current systems may affect other people in ways some of us are fortunate enough to not have to worry about.
But when certain values and our universal understanding of common decency is flipped on its head, then people’s natural reaction is to try and make sense and order of what is happening. It becomes easier and more comforting to pigeonhole and label people when we try to rationalise the irrational.
And as someone who identifies as a progressive minded liberal, it is hurtful to have labels put upon me, words put into my mouth and conclusions drawn about my beliefs. And yes, I’m certain I’ve been looked down upon and cruelly mocked behind my back – hey it happens to others, why should I be any different?
Let me be clear, I am in no way bashing anyone’s political preferences. It’s preposterous to label a political conservative as siding with Nazis, as it is to not distinguish between liberals, progressives and Marxists. Most people fall somewhere in between, and have a more complex view of the world, they may lean moderately right on some issues, and moderately left on others, all based on their personal values. This is normal and healthy.
But what happens when partisanship trumps personal values?
Jews of all political persuasions have one thing in common, on the whole we have always embraced compassion and kindness to others. We give to charities, we volunteer our time to help the needy both in our own communities and in the wider community, and likewise we have always opened our hearts to those who have fallen upon hard times. Rachamim (compassion, mercy, also known as “rachmunes” in Yiddish), g’milut chasadim (acts of loving kindness) and tikkun olam, literally “repairing the world”, but meaning both social justice and in the fulfillment of religious obligation, doing so in the true spirit of the doing the right and decent thing by others.
But as a secular Jew myself, I am neither qualified nor have the authority here to discuss or analyse religious texts. What I’m talking about our common Jewish humanistic values, which in turn overlap with the universal human values of empathy, respect and kindness, and include the treatment of humans and animals. These are practiced by religious Jews of both Orthodox and non Orthodox persuasions, secular Jews and cultural Jews. Universal values of decency and respect. And our interpretation of these basics don’t really really differ that much, other than prioritising some over others.
So what went wrong here?
Disillusionment. Once upon a time, Jews were welcomed both as active participants in civil rights and social justice for other marginalised groups, and at the same time included as one of the minority groups whose rights for fair and equal treatment were fought for in kind. There was a paradigm of mutual respect, our common humanity, unity against injustice, and it was rooted in empathy, not political oneupmanship. This was the predecessor to what is now known as “intersectionality” – which despite its good intentions has sadly devolved from a paradigm of trying to find common denominators among those who are powerless, into a competition between these groups — except guess which group is getting the door slammed in its face at the intersectionality tent?
Weariness. BDS and general anti-Israel sentiment and rhetoric takes its toll on us emotionally. Even the strongest and most patient online warrior can feel despondency and feel outnumbered and defeated by the vitriolic and irrational hate they face. When one is fatigued, one feels vulnerable, our interpretation of the world is filtered through our raw sensitivity, our perception of slights against us become magnified. Does that mean we’ve lost our concept of reality? Absolutely not. Our fears and frustrations are perfectly warranted and we are not dealing with isolated cases of anti Zionism and anti Semitism, and it is most definitely worming its way into the mainstream. But what we may be losing is our sense of perspective. We feel rightful rage and disappointment at the way social justice movements, from whom we have higher moral expectations, are more frequently betraying us. The trouble is, we fail to look at the bigger picture. But more on that later.
Cynicism. It’s not too much of a stretch to imagine that disorientation followed by disillusionment, fatigue and anger has hardened our shells and made us withdraw into them. We trust nobody, not even each other. We start to look at the world in terms of antisemitic/non antisemitic (an example of the “binary thinking” I mentioned above).
On social media, I see a lot of anger and “screamy” posts about antisemitism and anti Zionism. Some people post exclusively about this. Some people seem to put all their time into actively seeking out examples of antisemitism.
Now, before you all come after me…..PLEASE UNDERSTAND that I’m not diminishing the seriousness of growing antisemitism in all its forms and from all its sources. But I’m also alarmed when we start turning on each other. When we start believing that every Jew who leans remotely to the left is a traitor or a “kappo”, and even engage in ruthless social media shaming and mocking (as I mentioned earlier), without the target even remotely expressing sympathy or agreement with the regressives who have betrayed true liberalism, nor defending their antisemitism. We become reactive and accusatory, and our perception of what is actually being said is being filtered through our rage and frustration.
Desperation. Like a lonely child at school who is picked on, bullied and ostracised, sometimes a self esteem that has been so severely beaten into the ground and its soul so broken, can result in a person making some very poor decisions. Desperation for validation and acceptance, they become a target for those who pretend to befriend them in order to use them for their own ends. And it’s very easy to mistake this for real friendship. Israel seems to have picked up a lot of “supporters” from the far right. It’s easy to forget that when “my enemy’s enemy is my friend”, it is the basis of a false friendship. But it is very easy to be seduced. People who use others for their own agendas are good at this. And to be fair, these alliances of hate occur on the left too, for example, the way the pro BDS movement has formed alliances with parts of the African American civil rights movement.
If only we could just take a step back and remind ourselves that friendships formed based on a mutual hate for an “other” is not a true friendship. It is not based on mutual loyalty. For example, in the days that followed the Charlottesville incident, some right leaning Jews started blaming progressive and liberal Jews for the hate. I mean really???? Were progressive Jews also to blame in Europe in the 1930’s? Hate simply existed then, and was given trajectory by incitement and propaganda, just as it does now. Bigotry gets passed down from one generation to the other. Nothing ever really changed, apart from the technology and the way we communicate, and that it more openly comes from the extreme left. But this does not negate the hate that still comes from the right.
Furthermore, it’s one thing to embrace Israel support from conservatives who genuinely believe Jews have the right to have a homeland. It’s quite another to insist that the right are the *only* true supporters of Israel, and show a default allegiance to everything the right stands for, even if tin heir own heart and conscience, they don’t support their stance on certain social issues, just to prove that point. It was when I heard Jews insisting that the white supremacists in Charlottesville and their delightful company had every right to demonstrate (while rather feebly qualifying that they didn’t necessarily agree), that I realised that we may have reached the pinnacle of desperation. After all, permits and First Amendment rights aside, I doubt these same people would shrug off a BDS rally in such a cavalier manner, in fact – to put it delicately – they’d be defecating building materials! They’d be (rightfully) up in arms trying to shut the hate and incitement down. But this is how far partisanship has gone.
This is not who we are as a people. We are not haters, and we are not desperate, cynical, nor defeatists.
We are survivors. We are optimists. We “get on with it”. We are compassionate and have integrity no matter how much we disagree or fight among ourselves.
So where does that leave us?
Are we doomed to fulfilling the prophecy of the likes of Linda Sarsour, who peddles the nonsense that feminism and Zionism are incompatible? Are we going to accept defeat by the regressives and continue to get excluded from social justice events?
I for one do not want to be forced into a choice as to whether I stand by my fellow Jews and with Israel or whether I support other social justice movements. It is NOT one or the other. Guess what – one CAN care for one’s own people and for humanity. The two go hand in hand. We are part of the human race, let’s take our rightful place. Are we going to let others’ attempts to dehumanise us fulfil their prophecy? Why are we buying into it?
Are we going to let ourselves be chased back into shtetls, and live in fear of the “other”, as so many of the post Holocaust generation have done? (At least the survivors had good reason to feel this way after the hell on earth they had endured).
Are we going to be “sha shtil” or “dhimmi” Jews again….allowing others to dictate our place and our agency?
Are we going to sit back and allow progressive movements to be conquered, occupied and controlled by deluded fanatics whose sentiments mirror the fascism openly asserted by the far right?
Extremism begets extremism. Therefore, we can no longer afford to make it a partisan issue, we need to see the hate, whether it comes from the left or the right, for what it is. Which is a turf war between two groups of hateful sociopaths, a kind of Armegeddon if you will, except it’s evil against evil. And this is something we should all unite against.
We must not be bullied nor intimidated out of fighting for our values: equality, justice, decency and kindness. I refuse to accept the occupation and hijacking of social justice movements by deranged regressives with their own agendas. We need to drive these regressive people back into obscurity, rather than dissociate ourselves from liberalism and progressivism, which would mean we are effectively allowing them to drive us out. Let’s look towards positive examples like the Zioness movement.
As for binary thinking, it’s natural to feel the need to draw clear lines between enemies and friends. But it’s braver and wiser to make a real effort to take a closer look at shades of colour and contrast and understand why people who seemingly think differently to us, do or say what they do.
You’d think it would be that easy, wouldn’t you? Well maybe it just is…..