Who Gets to Speak about Antisemitism? “Antisemitism and the Struggle for Justice” at the New School for Social Research
On the evening of November 28th, 2017 the New School for Social Research in Manhattan, an institution long devoted to progressive politics and cultural critique, held an event entitled “Antisemitism and the Struggle for Justice.” It was in part a celebration of the book On Antisemitism: Solidarity and the Struggle for Justice published in 2017 by Haymarket Books sponsored by Jewish Voice for Peace. There were four panellists in attendance; Leo Ferguson who works for Jewish for Racial and Economic Justice, Lina Moralis a Chicago-based Latinx-Ashkenazi Jewish activist who identifies as bi-racial and who is openly anti-Zionist, Rebecca Vilkomerson, executive director of JVP, a progressive Jewish organization that supports BDS against Israel, and Palestinian-American activist Linda Sarsour. The event received sharp criticism in the Jewish media days before it took place, claiming, among other things, that these panellists have no right, nor are sufficiently equipped, to speak about antisemitism. Outside the New School auditorium stood a crowd of protesters from the wide swath of the Jewish centre-right to far-right, some calling for de-funding the New School for staging such an event. The event went off without a hitch, save two small disruptions during the Q & A period.
I attended the sold-out event and below I share a few reflections that I hope will be informative and foster further conversation. I will not be too descriptive as a video of the event is on-line for those who are interested to judge for themselves. Below I make five basic observations.
The right to talk about antisemitism
First, to the question as to why these four people should have the right to speak about antisemitism? This was not an academic panel, nor a panel of “experts.” This was a panel of activists, progressive people working in the streets of America on a variety of issues dealing with inequality, injustice, bigotry, and hatred. Antisemitism is one of those. So there were no clever readings of Foucault or any intricate critical analysis comparing Gavin Langmuir to Robert Wistrich (two historians of antisemitism) or discussions of historical precedent or comparative genocide. No clever Lacanean, Deleuzean, or Zizekean twists. Everyone on the panel was very clear about who they were, what they do, and how this issue impacts their work and their lives and why it matters.
As Annette Yoshiko Reed said to me, this was about positionality in the best sense. And here perhaps the biggest lesson for me was why many American Jews have such a hard time understanding where these people, many of whom are also American Jews, are coming from. For the panellists, antisemitism is not sui generis (at this point many American Jews just stop listening); it is one of a variety of forms of unacceptable hatred. Yes antisemitism has its own long and painful history, as does racism in America, and I do not suggest collapsing all forms of hatred into one neat package. But for these panellists antisemitism is not something that has to be examined as categorically distinct from other forms of bigotry. This very point remains a point of contention in the academic study of Holocaust and genocide studies. And antisemitism is certainly not only about Israel but also about the Jew more generally. The fact that this point needs to be made, and it does, is itself indicative of the problem we face today. The underlying premise of the panel is one of intersectionality, a notion that drives American Jews crazy, a notion that subverts simultaneously championing Black Lives matter and AIPAC, the idea (not new by the way, it already existed in a different form in New Left “internationalism”) that all forms of oppression are connected, in principle and in practice (note: this may be different than the original definition of “intersectionality” coined by feminist civil rights activist and race theorist Kimerlie Williams Crenshaw but is nonetheless a definition that is often used in today’s activist communities). This strikes at the heart of an often reflexive Jewish exceptionalism and harkens back to the difficult challenge for Jews in America that they are not the most othered other; coming to terms with the fact that race trumps antisemitism in this fruited plain, that racism, and not antisemitism, is part of the very structure (legal, cultural, political) of our country, that a person of colour is more likely to be harassed in the streets of one of our cities than a white Jew, more likely to be arrested by our police, and imprisoned by our system. There is certainly antisemitism in our society that needs to be addressed, each panel readily acknowledged that; but it is not what threatens to tear this country apart the way it did in Weimar Germany. Race does.
These panellists have right to talk about antisemitism the same way they have a right to talk about gender disparity, and racism, and police brutality, and poverty. Because in all of those, and more, they are in the streets fighting every day. Did they make “mistakes”? Yes, certainly. When they ventured too far into history, or even the analytical realm, they made factual and even descriptive errors. But I kind of liked the ragged edges of it all; they made no claim to be experts and their errors did not undermine their basic message.
Second: Defining antisemitism: Did they “define” antisemitism? Not really. But that is fine with me, as anything more than a working “definition” here is a trap in my view (on this see Gavin Langmiur’s Toward a Definition of Anti-Semitism or David Engel’s essay “Against Defining Anti-Semitism”). They did describe it, passionately, and also contextualized antisemitism as part of a larger fabric of hatred in America. They all acknowledged antisemitism on the white supremacist right, the progressive left, and in the Muslim world. As I happen to be working on Meir Kahane I can’t help adding something he said. Much of what Kahane thought and said I disagree with but here I think he got it right. As we know Kahane fought his entire career in America against the left (Jewish and American), against antisemitism in the Black Nationalist movement, in the Arab community etc. In an interview in the early 1970s when he was asked which was more dangerous in America, antisemitism on the right or on the left he said emphatically that it is no contest, antisemitism on the right is far more dangerous for Jews than any antisemitism on the left, including the Black Panthers, including the Muslim world. So for our panelists too, agree or disagree, there is no comparison between the antisemitism that exists in the anti-Israel campaign and Charlottesville. Perhaps because for so many American Jews Israel has become their religious dogma, their “civil religion,” this is sometimes hard to see. To acknowledge that there may be antisemites who are pro-Israel, even Zionist, is dissonant for many of us. But it is real. And this blind spot is dangerous indeed. The fact that the ZOA can invite Steve Bannon and Sebastian Gorka and Morton Klein can write in Breitbart News is far more startling, and dangerous, to me than Jews marching with Linda Sarsour.
The fear of Linda Sarsour
Third: On Sarsour: In many respects the event was as widely publicized as it was, and was as contentious as it was, because of Sarsour. She kind of reminds me of someone who once said of the Grateful Dead guitarist and counter-cultural icon Jerry Garcia. “Jerry Garcia never really existed, he was just a figment of Robert Hunter’s imagination.” Linda Sarsour has become the figment of the anxious American Jewish imagination. In some way, she fills the role Edward Said played in the 80s and 90s. Except Said out Occidentalized the Occident; he was a classical pianist, wrote scholarly essays on Joseph Conrad and English Literature, dressed in Brooks Brothers suits, spoke more like an Oxford don than a school yard bully, was a Palestinian Christian and not a Muslim. But still, an academic colleague once said to me, “The problem with Said is that he is pro-Palestinian.” “No,” I responded, “he is not pro-Palestinian, he IS Palestinian.”
Sarsour, on the other hand, is not a professor in an Ivy League university, she looks like she comes from Baghdad and talks like she comes from Bensonhurst. She can talk street jive yet uses her hands like a ballet dancer. She is a Brooklyn in-your-face activist. And she is a proud Palestinian-American who is openly against what she says is “Israel, the apartheid state.” You are welcome to disagree, she is fine with that, but she certainly has the creds, and the right, to say it. She has the cadence of Malcolm X but is not as militant. Like Malcolm she is consummate performer. Give her a mic and she has the audience in the palm of her hand in 10 seconds. Watch some Malcolm X videos and you will see what I mean.
I think the thing about Sarsour that is maddening for many centre-left American Jews is that she is actively engaged in many issues they agree with. Progressive issues like prison reform, rights of migrant workers, Transphobia, Islamophobia, gender discrimination, labour unions, poverty, health care reform, etc. Her political hero in a Jew from Brooklyn named Bernie Sanders. I could go on. So when she comes out wearing hijab against Israel it drives some of us crazy. She posed an interesting question to American Jews: she said, “I am a Palestinian-American, my grandparents were born and raised in Palestine, as was my family for generations, and they were displaced by the Zionist state. You tell me, what should I think about Zionism?” It reminds me of the anecdote of a Zionist being asked to define Zionism. “Sure,” he said, “Zionism is like a man jumping out of the third floor window of a burning building…and landing on someone else’s head.” Zionism landed on the head of Sarsour’s family (like so many other Palestinian families). So is she supposed to be pro-Zionist? Is she supposed to be sympathetic to the Jewish narrative (which she, like Said before her, unequivocally acknowledged as legitimate) while her Jewish interlocutors reject her narrative? Or don’t even care to listen to it? Or claim she has no right to speak while her extended family remains under a brutal occupation? Should she be what Israelis call one of the “good Arabs”? Is that our standard for her right to speak on these issues? She says she favours a liberal democracy in Israel, a state for all its citizens. Is that antisemitic? I know many Jews who agree, Israelis too, and I too am sympathetic to that stance. Would that be the end of the Jewish state? I don’t think so. If Israel granted citizenship to all Palestinians tomorrow and even if the population was 55% Palestinian and 45% Jewish Israeli, it would still be a Jewish state in practice for the foreseeable future (Likud member Moshe Ahrens has been making this point for years).
In any case, Sarsour has been a champion of many progressive causes, has fought discrimination more than most of us, has been arrested many times defending many different communities, and has been recognized as a serious activist. She has stood and worked with Jewish activists like Jill Jacobs of T’ruah, she raised $162,000 from Muslim-Americans to help restore the damaged Jewish cemetery in St Louis and then gave the remaining proceeds to restore a Jewish cemetery in Colorado. She is also against Israel as presently construed. I don’t think American Jews know what to make of that. In this way she is much more complicated than Said. She said that she is fine with people criticizing her, just not criminalize her right to hold a position (BDS) she thinks is both legitimate and reasonable from where she stands. Does this make everything OK? No, it does not. Antisemitism is not ok, which is precisely why the panel challenged the way some use antisemitism as a policing tool to stop others from speaking, even when what they are saying may not be antisemitic. Yes, Sansour thinks “Zionism is creepy.” I may disagree but that does not, in my view, constitute antisemitism.
But there is more. If Sansour is sincere in her claims to protest only against Israel as an “apartheid state” and not against the very existence of Israel in any form, or against Jews more generally, she has to come clean about positive remarks she has made about people like Louis Farrakan. Normalizing a figure like Farrakhan who has called Jews “bloodsuckers” and suggested that contemporary Jews “are not really Jews but are in fact Satan,” is not acting as part of what she defines as a “movement” to fight for justice, equality, and fairness in our society. To truly move from a successful progressive activist to a national leader for progressive causes, and certainly to achieve support from progressive Jews like myself, I think Sansour should publicly respond to her support, tacit as it may be, of people like Farrakhan who are not making our country a more just and safe place to live and raise our families. She openly acknowledges that antisemitism exists on the left and thus I hope she fights as strongly against that as she has against antisemitism and Islamophobia elsewhere in our society. Pressing Sansour to come clean about her thoughts on Farrakhan is not out of bounds, in my view, but would serve to strengthen her position in “the movement” where she now plays such a prominent role.
Jewishness and her anti-Zionism
Fourth: Lena Morales, a queer Latinx/Ashkenazi Jew from the south side of Chicago (who teaches Yiddish) made some interesting points about her Jewishness and her anti-Zionism. She said, “I became an anti-Zionist right after my birthright trip when I saw that in Israel, Palestinians are treated no better, and worse, than blacks on the south side of Chicago. It was then I realized I could not support it.” She claimed that “I am an anti-Zionist because of my attachment to my Jewishness. I think Zionist was a terrible mistake.” One can certainly disagree with that. But is that antisemitic? That is something we hear more and more from Millennial Jews in groups some of whom identify with IfNotNow, although IfNotNow also has many members who claim to be Zionists. That needs to be taken seriously and not discounted as out of bounds. She too, and people like her, deserver a place at the collective Jewish table.
The case for JVP
Fifth: Rebecca Vilkomerson gave a cogent and very impassioned case for JVP. She made the case why JVP, as a harsh critic of Israel, even as an organization that supports BDS, is not “antisemitic,” and her remarks, as opposed to the others, were mostly about Israel. You can disagree with JVP or not, I think she made a good case that undermined much of the centre-left critique of JVP as an organization that should not have a place at the table. For those who only know about JVP from its critics, I suggest listening to her remarks. I find the hysteria in the Jewish centre about JVP somewhat baffling. JVP has become kind of a Jewish version of Sansour, largely because of its support of BDS, even though many of those critics supported BDS is other cases, such as apartheid South Africa. This is not to equate the two but only to suggest that BDS is a tactic of a non-violent protest. One can disagree that it should apply in this case but to criminalize it and those who support non-violent protest by calling it “antisemitic” by definition, is, in my view, part of why this panel was necessary.
Nothing but a leftist panel?
Finally, to respond to critics who said “this is nothing but a leftist panel talking to leftists,” in one sense this is true. But so what? How many academic panels have I sat in on that are academics simply talking to academics, all of whom share the same canon, have the same bag of tricks, make the same clever moves. Or how many panels on antisemitism (even whole conferences) have I attended where the entire panel consisted of pro-Israel advocates who decry the state of anti-Israelism as antisemitism. I teach at a university that has an entire institute for the study of antisemitism that has hosted numerous conferences on the subject. I have published on the Holocaust and antisemitism and yet have never once been invited to any of those conferences in my home university. Why is that? I think the reason is obvious. The conveners know I will not say what they want to be said. And they are right. This is fine with me, I attended the conferences anyway. It is just to say this is nothing new.
The call for parity in every instance is a trick often used by those critical of the left. I once invited Peter Beinart to speak at my synagogue. A member came up to me angrily afterwards and said, “Now you have to invite someone from the other side.” “Why,” I asked, “a few years ago we invited Jewish feminist Letty Pogrebin, do I now have to invite an anti-feminist? And if I invited Alan Dershowitz, would you come to me and say that next year you have to invite Peter Beinart?” The panel at the New School was a panel of progressive activist all of whom deal with matters of inequality, injustice, and bigotry. Antisemitism is included as part of that. They have every right to speak. To suggest otherwise is simply perpetuating what is wrong in our society articulated so beautifully in Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s “Can the Subaltern Speak?’.
In sum while one can, and should, be critical about various things that were said, or not said, I learned a great deal from this event, about activism vs. intellectualism, about the American Jewish anxiety regarding who gets to speak and who doesn’t, about the way liberalism has a hard time thinking outside of itself, especially in regards to progressive radicalism, and about how easy it is for us baby boomers to be only one step away from standing outside on our porch in a bathrobe with a broom screaming at the neighbourhood kids to “get off my lawn.”
Shaul Magid, Jewish Thought and Culture Editor of Tikkun magazine, is the Jay and Jeanie Schottenstein professor of Jewish Studies at Indiana University/Bloomington, a Kogod Senior Research Fellow at The Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, and rabbi of the Fire Island Synagogue. He is presently the NEH Senior Research Fellow at The Center for Jewish History in Manhattan. His latest book is Hasidism Incarnate: Hasidism, Christianity, and the Making of Modern Judaism with Stanford University press, 2015.