Guest Column by Bonnie Puckett Levine
As one of the organizers for the IfNotNow Day of Jewish Resistance in Atlanta on Nov. 30, I was pleased with the AJT’s coverage of the event, which kept the umbrella organization and its mission in proper perspective.
I also appreciated Michael Jacobs’ column a few days later, digging a little deeper into IfNotNow and most notably expressing that “every time a would-be #JewishResistance leader talks about Israeli oppression of the Palestinians … that movement loses Jewish support.” This is a discussion absolutely critical to the Jewish community right now.
I consider myself a proud Zionist. I once bought multiple copies of Alan Dershowitz’s “The Case for Israel” and gave them to people who started that discussion with me.
I believe that key Palestinian leadership wants to destroy Israel more than to create a Palestinian state and that placing the burden of peace on Israel in the midst of this reality is futile. I believe that the warped anti-Israel mainstream narrative is untrue and unfair, and its widespread nature in the international community and among progressives concerns me.
But recently the pro-Israel narrative is also increasingly warped. Israel seems to be a litmus test for every political issue, a shield to shut down much-needed discussion and a condition behind major donor funding. It is used both to defend abhorrent views and candidates and to distance Jews from important views and candidates with which we would otherwise align.
As Jews, we are expected to “BDS” everyone who supports BDS and may be shamed as traitors or “self-hating Jews” if we do not. Words like “occupation” become triggers of a fight-or-flight emotional response. People (including Jews) who question any Israeli policy risk being labeled as anti-Israel or, in extreme cases, anti-Semitic.
This knee-jerk mentality threatens to splinter us internally and risks losing us a seat at the table with key allies. It does Israel the largest disservice of all, allowing the powerful anti-Israel narrative to continue without effective resistance.
Our response to the Movement for Black Lives provides one locally relevant example: The Jewish community remained largely silent on Black Lives Matter until, in a long and comprehensive platform, M4BL included a few sentences on Israel. Suddenly, the Jewish community, which had not been interested enough in the movement to provide input into the platform in the first place, mobilized to criticize it.
Jewish collective umbrage was quick and rampant. The Israel statement was circulated, often in a sensationalist manner without adequate context or perspective. Many Jewish organizations decided to publicly denounce the entire movement, ostensibly without sufficient critical reflection or engagement with constituents.
For example, American Jewish Committee’s Atlanta office put out an unprecedented policy statement on behalf of the Black-Jewish Coalition that concludes: “The decision to denounce Israel requires us to distance ourselves from MBL.”
The Black-Jewish Coalition is best known for its Project Understanding retreat, bringing an equal number of black and Jewish young adults together for meaningful discourse, and for its biennial Black-Jewish Seder. What distinguishes the coalition from AJC is the presence of black voices, virtually none of whom was consulted before the statement was put out.
In the wake of the statement, some BJC members — black and Jewish — were shocked and dismayed, both by the presumptuousness of a statement purporting to represent what was in concept an organization as much black as Jewish and by AJC’s lack of transparency in response to questions about it. At least a few black BJC members expressed disaffectedness, wondering whether the organization was worth their continued identification and support.
“What really bothered me was that this statement was a misrepresentation of the coalition mission and essentially speaking on my behalf without notice, consideration or proactive engagement of the coalition,” 2015 Project Understanding alumna Chandra Farley said. “Based on this, I question whether BJC is an organization I want to affiliate with. I want to believe that the AJC values the BJC and wants it to be something great for Jews and blacks, but that isn’t currently being conveyed at all.”
This is merely one example of a consistent pattern whereby well-known Jewish organizations signal a concerning lack of interest in anything that might impinge on uncritical Israel advocacy, alienating would-be coalition partners as well as social-justice-focused Jews. The result is that those who perceive the incoming administration as a threat to basic human rights are left with few Jewish options.
Donald Trump’s appointment of Steve Bannon concerned many within the Jewish community, but IfNotNow was the only organization offering a local opportunity to come together and stand up against it as Jews. The event we organized had nothing to do with Israel, yet several friends told me or implied that IfNotNow’s Israel platform was the reason for their nonattendance.
I understand and sympathize with that view, but it disappoints me. The need to walk on eggshells about Israel creates a perception of collective Jewish indifference about issues on which I believe the Jewish people should speak with conviction.
While I think Jacobs’ column makes a good point about IfNotNow’s scattered focus, I cannot put the onus entirely on progressive organizations to drop critical references to Israel with threats of losing Jewish support — in fact, the threat of losing Jewish support goes both ways.
My passion for urgent progressive causes like Black Lives Matter, as well as my speaking against homophobia, transphobia, Islamophobia and xenophobia, leads me to feel more aligned with “anti-occupation” organizations (both Jewish and non-Jewish) and less welcome within traditional “Jewish establishment” organizations, whose Israel views are closer to mine.
In my experience, the anti-occupation organizations are not threatened by my pro-Israel views because I am not threatened by theirs. If the Jewish establishment continues to project that it is viscerally threatened by a diversity of viewpoints on Israel, it too will lose Jewish support over time.
Jewish institutions can and should defend Israel mightily while proudly linking arms with anti-occupation groups on other issues. By overcoming our skittishness about the Israel litmus test, we can avoid succumbing to moral weakness and ensure that the pro-Israel voice remains relevant to the civil-rights-minded among us and future generations.
For my part, I will do my best to dismantle the presumption that support of events and organizations like the recent #JewishResistance demonstration constitutes betrayal of Israel — while simultaneously endeavoring to create other opportunities to resist without implicating Israel, as Jacobs suggests.
I want Israel to have a seat at the table of progressive causes. Progressive Zionists, let’s make it happen together.