Are Zionists allowed on the American left?

Climate group refuses to attend voting rights rally due to presence of a number of "Zionist organizations"

JVL Introduction

The Washington, DC branch of the environmental group, Sunrise, made news last week when it announced it would not speak at a voting rights rally so long as three Jewish Zionist groups took part.

In this contribution, Peter Beinart skewers American groups like the ADL which rushed to condemn Sunrise while remaining shtum about the Israeli government’s outlawing of six prominent Palestinian human rights organisations.

In the US today, as he points out, anti-Zionists are far more likely to be “cancelled” than are Zionists.

That said, Beinart nonetheless argues strongly against Sunrise’s decision. It is, he believes, politically self-destructive; and it specifically targeted Jews.

Here the argument is subtle but very important: Sunrise was not calling, for example, to boycott non-Jewish groups like the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), which supports Israel’s “right to exist”.

The debate has resonances here in Britain and it is important that the Palestine solidarity movement gets it right.

Thanks to Peter Beinart for permission to repost.

This article was originally published by The Beinart Notebook on Mon 25 Oct 2021. Read the original here.

Are Zionists allowed on the American left?

The Washington, DC chapter of the environmental group, Sunrise, made news last week when it announced it would not speak at a voting rights rally so long as three Jewish Zionist groups took part. This kind of thing seems to be happening more frequently—leftists are refusing to join coalitions that include supporters of a Jewish state. This worries me, for reasons I’ll detail below…

So what do I think about Sunrise DC’s decision? First, I think it needs to be put into perspective. In the US today, anti-Zionists are far more likely to be “cancelled” than are Zionists. The United States Departments of State and Education have adopted The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of antisemitism, which essentially defines anti-Zionism as Jew-hatred. (One of the IHRA’s examples of antisemitism is “denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination.”) Thirty-two states have passed laws targeting the Boycott, Divestment and Sanction (BDS) movement, which calls in one of its planks for an equal rather than a Jewish state inside the 1967 lines. Texas, for instance, barred a speech pathologist from working in its elementary schools because she wouldn’t pledge not to boycott Israel. Arizona told a public interest lawyer he couldn’t represent inmates in its jails. Whatever you think of Sunrise DC’s effort to exclude Jewish Zionist groups from a voting rights rally, it’s a lot less punitive than denying anti-Zionists (or anyone else who supports boycotting Israel) state employment. Some of the Jewish organizations most outraged by Sunrise DC’s decision embrace the IHRA definition. Which means they’re all for excluding—and even punishing—people whose views of Israel they don’t like. They just don’t want it done to them.

In Israel itself, the penalties for anti-Zionism are even more severe. In the same week that Sunrise DC refused to march with Jewish Zionist groups, the Israeli government outlawed six prominent Palestinian human rights organizations. (Remember that the next time someone tells you Israel’s a thriving liberal democracy.) As of Sunday night, the Anti-Defamation League—which says its mission is to “secure justice and fair treatment” for all—had tweeted or retweeted six denunciations of the Sunrise DC decision and not mentioned the Israeli government’s decision at all.

But even though Palestinians and their supporters face much graver threats to their freedom of speech, and even though some of Sunrise’s harshest critics actively support these far graver threats, what Sunrise DC did is still wrong.

The first problem with Sunrise DC’s decision is that it’s politically self-destructive. The Republican Party’s effort to make it harder for people of color to vote, and to make it easier to overturn free elections, constitutes a momentous threat to American democracy. Anyone who wants to defend democracy in its hour of peril should be welcome. Earlier this month, urban liberals in Hungary agreed to nominate a rural conservative as their candidate for prime minister because he offers the best chance of defeating the authoritarian Viktor Orban and saving democracy in Hungary. Sunrise DC’s political purism constitutes the exact opposite logic. And it’s not only self-defeating in the struggle to protect voting rights, it’s self-defeating in general.

Successful movements require coalitions of people who disagree about other things. The civil rights movement included communists and anti-communists. The Catholic Church, which opposes abortion rights and LGBTQ rights, has often joined efforts to defend government programs that help the poor. Bernie Sanders worked with Mike Lee, the hard-right Republican senator from Utah, to pass legislation ending US involvement in the war in Yemen. The three Jewish Zionist organizations that Sunrise DC objected to—the Jewish Council on Public Affairs (JCPA) , the National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW) and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism (RAC) —support all kinds of laudable causes. Are they more objectionable than the Catholic Church? Follow Sunrise DC’s logic to its conclusion and you threaten the whole idea of diverse political coalitions.

The second problem with Sunrise DC’s decision is that it specifically targeted Jews. It didn’t target all Jews. Sunrise DC didn’t oppose marching alongside Jewish groups like The Workers Circle and Bend the Arc, which don’t take positions on Israel. But the only Zionist groups it boycotted were Jewish ones. As the Sunrise chapter at George Washington University noted, Sunrise DC didn’t refuse to march alongside the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), whose president recently defended Israel’s “right to exist” and “defend itself.” Like the RAC, the NCJW and the JCPA, the AFT supports a Jewish state alongside a Palestinian one. So why wasn’t it blacklisted? Probably because its Zionism is less obvious. And why is its Zionism less obvious? Because it’s not a Jewish group.

This kind of thing appears to happen on college campuses too. Jewish students claim they are interrogated about—and potentially punished for—their views on Israel in ways that non-Jewish students are not. Even people who support boycotts of Israel should recognize this as a problem—in the same way it would be a problem to single out Chinese American students for scrutiny about their views about Beijing’s oppression of Uyghurs or Iranian American students for scrutiny about their views on state repression in Iran.

Theoretically, it’s possible to painstakingly ferret out the Zionist tendencies of every potential organization or individual you might be in coalition with, irrespective of whether they are Jewish. Such a search would create its own interesting dilemmas. It would, for instance, leave Sunrise DC unable to participate in a voting rights march with most members of the Congressional Black Caucus since they actively support Israel’s existence as a Jewish state. But even if it were possible to exile Zionists from progressive spaces without specially targeting Jews—and I don’t think it is—what would that achieve? Since many Zionists—Jewish and otherwise—play important roles in promoting progressive causes, such an effort would undermine the coalitions upon which those causes rely. Which is exactly what has happened with the voting rights rally, which has now descended into turmoil as a result of Sunrise DC’s decision.

Such a litmus test might also undermine the effort to fight the exclusion of anti-Zionists. Given the balance of forces in the US today, it is easier to build support for the principle that both supporters of Palestinian rights and supporters of Israel should be welcomed in progressive spaces than to argue for including the former but excluding the latter. Excluding the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism from the voting rights march won’t make it easier to include Linda Sarsour in the next Women’s March. It will make it harder.

The US needs a much more open and uninhibited debate not just about Israeli policy but about the combability of Jewish statehood and liberal democracy. And it also needs people on different sides of that debate to join together to do things like save the republic from Donald Trump. If I were Sunrise DC, I’d issue a statement welcoming the Religious Action Center on Reform Judaism, the National Council of Jewish Women and the Jewish Council on Public Affairs to the voting rights march—and simultaneously challenging them to host a Palestinian speaker who critiques Zionism at their next event on Israel. That would contribute to the struggle for freedom both in the US, and in Israel-Palestine as well.


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Comments (2)

  • Naomi Wayne says:

    I thought this article was bloody brilliant. A really important and thoughtful contribution to discussion on Palestinian solidarity politics. It is hugely important that we try to build the broadest and strongest alliances to campaign for Palestinian rights.

  • Sheldon Ranz says:

    Beinart has his facts wrong, I’m afraid. Sunrise DC wanted those three groups excluded not because they were Jewish, but because they were the only groups that supported Israeli apartheid, not just through lip service, but though deeds. For example, the National Council for Jewish Women (NCJW) has a partnership with Tel Aviv University. TAU works extensively with the Israeli military to maintain the occupation and come up with ever more ghoulish ways to murder innocent Palestinian women, men and children.

    NCJW and another of the group targeted by Sunrise DC, as well as Beinart himself, ran on the Hatikvah slate, during the last World Zionist Organization (WZO) elections. An important WZO function is to maintain the Jewish National Fund, which ensures that Israeli land can only be owned by Jews.

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