An Exchange Between Wendy Elisheva Somerson and Yotam Marom on Anti-Semitism in the Left and the Jewish Left
[Editor’s note: The article below by Wendy Elisheva Somerson was written in response to an article Tikkun published on our website a week ago written by Yotam Marom titled Toward the Next Jewish Rebellion: Facing Anti-Semitism and Assimilation in the Movement. We published that long article because it is relevant (though not written as a direct response to) a vigorous debate now taking place in progressive Jewish circles about how to think about an alliance with The Movement for Black Lives in light of its recent platform that included as one of its elements the claim that Israel is engaging in “genocide” against the Palestinian people, but also because it addresses the larger question of how to deal with anti-Semitism in the Left and in the consciousness of some leftist Jews who may have unconsciously internalized the anti-Semitism in the movement in order to protect their status as “loyal allies” to the Left as a whole, and in this case, to the section of the struggle against racism that has the label “Black Lives Matters” (though that is only a small section of the larger anti-racist movements in the US.). To understand Somerson more fully, it makes sense to first read Yotam Marom’s original piece, which you’ll find athttp://www.tikkun.org/nextgen/
Arguing for the Sake of Heaven: Toward an Accountable Jewish Liberation
by Wendy Elisheva Somerson
We should always be wary about people who claim to summarize “the Jewish people” whether they are anti-Semitic or trying to elevate Jews in certain ways. Let’s assume we are a complex people, and that makes us very much like other people. — Judith Butler
I was excited to dig into Yotam Marom’s lengthy piece, “Toward the Next Jewish Rebellion: Facing Anti-Semitism and Assimilation in the Movement” after so many of my Lefty Jewish friends posted it on social media. As a fellow Jewish activist, I also long for Jewish culture to be visible in our social justice movements. But when I actually read his piece, I was disappointed because Marom conflates Jews with the State of Israel at a time when we should be doing everything we can to separate the two.
I recently got to join a discussion with Judith Butler about how false accusations of anti-Semitism are used against the Palestinian solidarity movement. These charges portray a movement that advocates freedom and justice in Palestine as a cover for anti-Semitism. In order for this logic to work, it relies on two false equations: criticizing the state of Israel is equal to criticizing all Jewish people because the state of Israel is synonymous with Jews.
The best way to refute this logic is to keep arguing for Jewish complexity by insisting on our diverse Jewish histories, racial identities, and, importantly, varying viewpoints on Israel. By insisting on the many differences among Jews, we can keep separating our Jewish identities from the State of Israel.
Marom does the opposite by constructing one overarching narrative of what it means to be Jewish, which reinforces Ashkenazi-centrism, collapses Jews with Israel, and positions Jews in a static category of victimhood.
I want to be emphasize that I don’t intend for this piece to be only a critique, but also to open up a conversation about the role of anti-Semitism in our movements at a time in the struggle for global racial justice when it feels especially dangerous to oversimplify our identities and conflate Jews with Israel.
In some truly frightening legal cases, reminiscent of McCarthy era blacklisting, charges of anti-Semitism are being leveraged against the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement to penalize its supporters. Additionally, after a collective of over fifty Black groups released the prophetic Vision for Black Lives, they were immediately accused of anti-Semitism because they criticize the Israeli state and stand in solidarity with Palestine. As Jews on the Left, we should be doing everything we can to fight back against these claims, and to make it clear that the State of Israel does not, in fact, represent all of us. We need to amplify our Jewish voices to support racial justice with no exemptions or strings attached.
Jewish Trauma Includes the Nakba
Although it feels precarious to critique Marom for beginning his piece with a description of his grandmother and her experience surviving the Nazi Holocaust, I find this framing troubling for a few reasons. First of all, I question the frequency with which we start any conversation about Jews and anti-Semitism with a Holocaust story. I want to be clear that I do think many of us need to heal from the trauma of the Nazi Holocaust, and I have also written about my relatives who survived it, so I am not exempting myself from this critique. However, because the State of Israel has cynically appropriated the story of the Nazi Holocaust to justify its founding and shut down criticism of its actions, I believe we have to be careful about how and when we tell our own stories.
Too often these stories reinscribe the centrality of the Nazi Holocaust as the defining trauma for all Jews and reinforce a Eurocentric or Ashkenazi-centric narrative for Jews on the Left. For many Mizrahi and Sephardi Jews, the central trauma in their histories was the disruption of their ancient communities due to Zionism and the founding of the State of Israel, not the Nazi Holocaust. In fact, most of Marom’s piece is focused on Ashkenazi Jewish identity without really being named as such.
Second, his description of his grandparents’ arrival in Palestine erases the structural force of settler colonialism that defined the founding of Israel. He describes sitting at his Savta’s table in Haifa, Israel, where they often end up talking about the German occupation of her shtetl in Poland where most of her family was killed. She goes on to tell him the story of her escape from Europe and how she ends up in Palestine:
She tells me about meeting my Sabba at a refugee camp in Italy, and getting on a rickety ship to Palestine. She tells it matter-of-factly, without ideology or pomp, as if this were the only rational thing to do. Savta talks about the kibbutz she lived on, and then their first apartment in Haifa. It had dirt floors and broken windows, and had belonged to a Palestinian family, gone before they arrived. She says it with a genuine sadness, but not guilt, as if to say that the world is tragic one way or another and we all just do what we have to in order to survive. Somewhere out there, perhaps, a Palestinian family still hangs the key to that home on their wall. Perhaps a young man and grandma sit, like we do, in Nablus or Amman or down the block from me in Brooklyn, and discuss the Nakba, the ruins of a much fresher tragedy lying on top of ruins from the tragedy before, and the one before that.
Marom’s narrative sets us up to identify with his grandmother who survived so much violence. As a reader, I am moved by her story and would never blame her for taking the apartment in Haifa after witnessing her father getting shot and most of her family killed.
Yet his description is troubling because it turns the structural violence of ethnic cleansing into a personal choice. It wasn’t simply doing the “only rational thing” or “doing what she had to do” that landed his Savta her new home. It was European colonialism, adapted by the founders of the Israeli state, that determined who was welcomed into an apartment in Haifa and who faced violent expulsion. Marom’s emphasis on his grandmother’s tone of resignation (“the world is tragic in one way or another”) makes it sound like the Nakba was the inevitable result of the Nazi Holocaust when, in fact, many historical factors, including European colonialism, contributed to this outcome, and many other outcomes were possible.
In order for her to have access to this apartment, dirty floors and all, another family was forcibly removed and perhaps killed in an act of ethnic cleansing. While Marom mentions the Nakba in what seems almost like an aside, he goes on to re-focus his narrative on his grandparents’ trauma in and after Europe. This is troubling because it reinforces the logic of European colonialism for the reader. It feels like he’s saying “sure, some bad things happened to Palestinians along the way — death and violent expulsion — but anyhow, let’s get back to the story of displaced European Jews.”
Marom’s portrayal of his grandmother’s story and the story of the Palestinian family who lost their home as two separate tragedies piled on top of each other adheres to the liberal narrative that there are two stories about the founding of the state of Israel. One is the story of Israeli independence, his Savta gained a home, and the other is the story of the Nakba or catastrophe, Palestinians lost their home. In fact, these are the same story: the ethnic cleansing of Israel was a catastrophe for everyone. While clearly Palestinians paid the biggest price, it was also a collective catastrophe for the European Jews who gained homes, but damaged their souls by displacing another people. It was also a catastrophe for many Sephardi, Mizrahi and other Jews of color, many of whom lost their previous homes and whose immigration to Israel involved everything from the indignity of being sprayed with DDT upon arrival to the horrors of having their children taken away from them.
Marom’s grandparents’ story could have served as a moment to examine not only the impact of European anti-Semitism on future generations of Jews, but also the impact of the catastrophe that lies at the heart of the founding of the state of Israel. Instead, Marom focuses his attention on how his grandparents’ trauma manifests two generations later in his own survivor behaviors of anxiety and fearfulness.
While I absolutely agree with Marom that Ashkenazi Jews need to examine and heal from intergenerational trauma, we need to expand our notion of what this trauma entails. Just as surely as we must heal from anti-Semitism in our family histories, we must also heal from the trauma of the Nakba if we have any connection to Israel. How are we imprinted with the tragedy that stems from a homeland being created in our names that displaced other people from their homes? How does it impact us that European Jewish lives became more important than Palestinian lives and the lives of Jews of color, including Jews who were already living in Palestine? This too lives on in our DNA. I would love to see us truly come to terms with the complex legacy of our shifting relationship to oppression and privilege.
Separating Jews from Israel
While I do believe we should name and fight anti-Semitism on the Left and elsewhere, most of what Marom reads as anti-Semitism actually seems like criticism of the Israeli state. We need to be crystal clear in differentiating anti-Semitism from critique of Israel, both to legitimize the right to criticize any state’s power and to make our fight against anti-Semitism effective.
Unfortunately, even for Jews on the Left, it seems that Israel has spoken in our names for so long that we have internalized the idea that Israel is somehow “ours” as Jews, and then we treat Israel like a hapless relative whom we must defend against outside attacks. Only we are allowed to criticize it, but by treating Israel like an errant family member instead of a powerful nation-state, we are weakening our analysis of structural power and turning conversations that should be about Israel’s violation of Palestinian human rights to conversations about us as Jews.
Marom writes about attending a 2014 protest of the Israeli assault on Gaza and seeing posters of the Jewish star with an equal sign next to a Nazi swastika, as well as other signs equating Israel with the SS and Hitler. I, too, have written about my discomfort in seeing these signs that make my head spin, but I’m not convinced that these are clear signs of anti-Semitism. They certainly indicate a general confusion about how these tragedies are connected, which is all the more reason, we need to keep forwarding our own analysis. And yes, I do wish non-Jewish folks would step up and ask folks not to bring these signs at rallies, but that doesn’t mean the signs represent a hatred of Jewish people, though they certainly indicate a hatred of the state that claims to speak in our name.
More disturbing to me is Marom’s criticism of friends who post articles about the Israeli army’s training of American police officers who use these tactics against Black communities. For Marom, although this brings up important connections, it also obscures power dynamics “as if we should take the connections to mean that Israel is so powerful that even the US war machine takes its direction from there, as if these police trainings or even Israel itself could exist without US imperialism, as if the Jews in Israel are the Americans’ puppet-masters and not the other way around.”
Do we have to assert that one state is a puppet master for the other? The puppet master analogy reinforces the notion of Israel as our powerless relative and entirely misses the point that both repressive states rely on each other and share worst tactics for controlling vulnerable populations. As the recent statement by the Jews of Color caucus points out, US police are sent to Israel “to learn violent and Islamophobic ‘counterterrorism’ methods tested on Palestinians living under occupation” while Israeli police officers come to the US “where they learn tactics of the US War on Drugs, which are later deployed against mostly Palestinian, Mizrahi, and Ethiopian communities.” Understanding and making links between racist and militarized policing in both the US and Israel is crucial for coordinating global resistance against racialized state violence.
Marom also sees anti-Semitism in his friends’ claims that Israel is the leading cause of anti-Semitism today. Marom interprets this claim to mean: “therefore we Jews are at fault for other people’s hatred of us, as if we deserve to be hated because of the actions of elites who claim to represent us, as if a minority group could ever be held responsible for other people’s categorical hatred of that entire group, as if any of my friends in the movement would tolerate that kind of talk about Black folks or Muslims or anyone else.”
But again this logic that “we Jews” are at fault is only true if we believe that Israel represents all Jews. People claim that Israel is the leading cause of anti-Semitism because Israel claims to be a Jewish state that speaks for all Jews. As it continues to destroy Palestinian homes, arrest Palestinian children and occupy another people’s land, people start to associate the Jewish people with this regime. Is this logic correct? No, but we also have the state of Israel to thank when it claims to represent us. Like many of us have been saying for a long time, the state of Israel’s oppressive policies make the world less safe for many of us Jews, and we need to keep speaking out against these policies, thereby refusing to let Israel represent us.
While I absolutely agree that anti-Semitism existed before the State of Israel and will almost certainly exist if there is no State of Israel, I don’t think the statement in itself is inherently anti-Semitic. I think it implies a recognition of the dangerous consequences of a settler colonial state claiming to represent an entire people.
Refusing Static Victimhood
This cataloguing of anti-Semitism leads up to Marom’s argument that Jews on the Left must claim their status as an oppressed people, but the idea of claiming a Jewish identity based on oppression feels disempowering to me, and ignores the complex interplay of oppression and privilege reflected in our Jewish identities. Marom’s analysis of the cyclical nature of anti-Semitism relies almost entirely on the history of anti-Semitism in Europe. Again it would have been helpful for him just to state that this theory reflects European Jewish history and ignores other histories of Jews, including Jews indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa. As Ella Shohat among others have pointed out, while this history has not been free of violence, Jews indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa were relatively integrated into their countries before Zionism in sharp contrast to how they were treated in Europe.
In discussing the cyclical nature of anti-Semitism, Marom references Harvey Jackins, the founder of Co-Counseling, who drew a diagram of anti-Semitism as a loose noose, which portrays the idea that the tide could shift at any moment. Marom goes on to say: that our current political moment defined by “the rise of a Trump candidacy, the fascist grassroots he has awakened from its slumber, the openly anti-Semitic things he has said, the Twitter trolls that have sprouted like weeds, the fascist politicians winning elections across Europe, the rise of hate groups around the country and the world, the rise of recorded hate crimes against Jews — can be seen as a tightening of that noose.”
The loose noose, or tight noose, for that matter, is an extremely dangerous analogy. The image evokes the gruesome history of lynching that overwhelmingly targeted African Americans and appropriates it for our own use. Given the horrendous state violence that continues to impact Black lives, it strikes me as incredibly inappropriate.
It also reinscribes a traumatic mentality that we must always and forever see ourselves as victims. The rise of fascism that he is describing doesn’t only, or even primarily, target Jews. Trump’s fascism is much more immediately threatening to Muslims, all people of color, and immigrants. How does it serve us to single out anti-Semitism when most of the violence we are witnessing is against Muslims and people of color? Let’s look at the intersections of anti-Semitism with racism, Islamophobia, and xenophobia, but also be clear that anti-Semitism doesn’t currently have the power of the state behind it in the US.
Furthermore, aside from the historical connotations of the image, I don’t think it is empowering to imagine anti-Semitism as a loose noose. Imagining a noose (around our necks? Floating in the air?) doesn’t make me feel strong; it tells me to be hypervigilant, to reenact trauma by constantly searching for signs that the ground might collapse at any moment, no matter how safe I might feel, and it makes me feel like a perpetual victim.
And this is the most troubling part of Marom’s argument for me; while he claims to be identifying anti-Semitism in order to make us feel powerful and effective on the Left, he freezes Jewish folks in the role of victim, which is the same strategy the Israeli state uses to justify its aggression against Palestinians. Because when we are always and forever victims, we become blameless and cannot harm others or take responsibility for those harms.
Close to the end of his argument, Marom argues that we must become “a people again” by finding our power, but he insists that we “must also acknowledge that we are an oppressed people — not so that we can evade responsibility for the ways we are empowered, or use our victimhood to shame and tear others down — but so we can align ourselves deeply and authentically with the titanic struggles for collective freedom before us. It is the only way we will ever genuinely stand in solidarity with others, the only way we will truly become our most powerful selves, the only way we will become whole again.”
The idea that we need to become “a people” makes no sense to me because we are already a people — a multiracial people living in the diaspora, and I don’t think we need to claim oppression in order to find our peoplehood or our power. If we’re truly taking responsibility for the places we carry privilege, then why should our sense of ourselves as Jews with various intersecting identities, be frozen in oppression?
Since when has solidarity relied on us claiming oppression? Don’t get me wrong; I’ve made a similar argument about Jews using our own histories of displacement and dispossession to empathize with and stand alongside the most vulnerable people, but I don’t think showing up in solidarity requires us to claim a static category of oppression for ourselves. The whole point of solidarity is to take a stand for justice with others especially when you are in a different position in relation to power and privilege, or, as Melanie Kaye Kantrowitz describes it, “wrapping of two peoples in a cloak that only one has.”
The path forward
As someone deeply invested in the need for Jewish healing from our various histories in the service of breaking cycles of violence, I want to reemphasize that as Jews together in struggle, Marom and I share a similar vision for where we want to go, but we disagree on how to get there.
And this disagreement positions us squarely in the tradition of Jewish argument dating back to the Talmud, a central text of Rabbinic Judaism, which forwards the notion that we can and should engage in disagreement “for the sake of heaven.” Having this type of holy disagreement means listening carefully to each other, arguing for the sake of a higher purpose, and refusing to lose connection. I hope my disagreement with Marom can help move us toward our shared goal of becoming our most powerful and visible Jewish selves in the fight for justice.
As Ashkenazi Jews, healing from trauma doesn’t have to mean recycling the same stories that reinforce our sense of perpetual victimhood. Instead we could pause, look around, and notice that we are in a different historical moment — one that opens up new possibilities for Jewish identities that don’t rely on Zionism, the Holocaust and anti-Semitism to define us.
What if we started popularizing and internalizing (without idealizing) Jewish stories of living in relative peace with our Muslim and Christian neighbors in the Middle East prior to World War II? Perhaps we could start incorporating the breadth of the Jewish diaspora into our storytelling and rituals. We could even highlight moments in our global histories when others have stood in solidarity with us.
For those among us who find ourselves in a period of safety and stability, let’s be visible as Jews fighting alongside our friends and neighbors who are currently being targeted by state oppression. This is a crucial moment for us to unequivocally support (and absolutely not undermine) two of the most important racial justice struggles of our time: the BDS movement and the movement for Black lives. We create our path to healing, safety and wholeness by moving toward justice.
A founder of Jewish Voice for Peace-Seattle, Wendy Elisheva Somerson works at the intersection of art, activism and ritual to help envision and create the world to come. She is a somatic practitioner in Seattle.
More on the Next Jewish Rebellion: A Response to Wendy Somerson
by Yotam Marom
I appreciated reading Wendy Elisheva Somerson’s response to my piece, agreements and disagreements alike. It’s clear as day that Somerson’s critique embodies a very genuine commitment to Black lives, to Muslim lives, to Palestinian freedom, and to a thriving Jewish people. She names three over-arching issues with my piece: That it is Ashkenazi-centered; that it conflates anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism; and that it places Jews in a static position of victimhood. I’ll try to respond to each briefly, and then go a bit further.
First, yes, it is Ashkenazi-centered. I certainly have my own blind spots, and this is one of them. Still, I’m not convinced that Mizrahi and Sephardic narratives are as diametrically opposed to the Ashkenazi experience as Somerson seems to be suggesting, and I think there is important history missing from the claim that Jews were entirely content in the Middle East before Zionism. I would imagine that – just as European Jewish history is complex (for example, the difference between how Ashkenazi Jews were treated in Western vs. Eastern Europe at various times, or the fact that Dutch Jews were largely Sephardic and treated very well, etc.), the history of Jews in Arab states is equally complex, including periods of stability and integration as well as attacks and state repression. But in any case, I don’t know the history well enough to debate it here, and the fact that I didn’t engage with this diversity of Jewish experience in my piece is certainly one of its limitations, so I welcome the critique. I hope what it yields is more – more people sharing their stories and experiences, more folks sharpening one another’s analysis of anti-Semitism, and especially more Mizrahim and Jews of color doing so.
Somerson’s second critique is that I conflate anti-Semitism with anti-Zionism – that I’m attacking a justifiable anti-Zionism by calling it anti-Semitism, which plays into the hands of the Right.
In order to make this argument, Somerson has to omit the examples I’ve given of anti-Semitism that have nothing to do with Israel. She also doesn’t take into account that our ability as Jews to distance ourselves from Israel is as varied as is the wide diversity of Jewish experience. But more importantly, Somerson critiques two of my examples of anti-Semitism in the movement. On one hand, she’s right to interrogate these examples – they matter, and it’s important that they have integrity on their own. I believe they do, but the interrogation is important nonetheless. At the same time, pulling apart a few examples that seem tenuous is often the way we protect ourselves from having to see the over-arching patterns of which they are a part. It’s true, none of the examples on their own prove that anti-Semitism is alive and well in the movement. But I believe the pattern does.
Somerson also makes the claim that my Savta’s story “sets us up” to justify the Nakba, to make it seem like the dispossession and violence the Palestinians faced in 1948 (and since) is sad but unavoidable. Let me be clear: I don’t think Zionism was the only possible response to anti-Semitism, nor that going to Israel was the only thing Jews could have done. I don’t think the Nakba was a tragic but necessary after-effect of the Holocaust, or that Palestinian lives are a worthwhile price to pay for the safety of European Jews. My Savta doesn’t think so either. What I do think, and what I wrote, is that my Savta’s boarding of a ship to Palestine – the only place to which she was offered passage where people weren’t trying to kill her – was understandable. I was hoping to humanize my Savta by telling her story, because she deserves it, like everyone does. But I was also doing so for the sake of good strategy. It is much simpler for us if my grandma remains a vague, shapeless cog in an ethnic cleansing machine, but it’s not a nuanced enough story to be real, and it leads to bad strategy – one that doesn’t take into account why people do the things they do, or the fact that systems and ideologies – even the ones that lead us astray – are born from real needs.
Whether you think Zionism is a worthy dream gone wrong or an irredeemable settler colonial nightmare from start to finish, our analysis will always be incomplete if we don’t take into account the fact that it only came to exist in the first place as a survival response to centuries of anti-Semitism. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t hold Israel responsible for the violence it carries out, and so I appreciate Somerson’s caution that we not treat it like an “errant family member instead of a powerful nation-state.” But it does mean that, until we address anti-Semitism as a grounded fear and commit to fighting against it, we will never be able to offer a viable alternative to the many Jews who will seek safety wherever they can get it, sometimes by siding with the Right and a militarized Israel. This is important strategically even if all we want is to end the occupation; but it is even more important if we are serious about wanting freedom and dignity for all people, including Palestinians, Jews, and everyone else. When my Savta becomes, again, a living, breathing human being with her own fears and needs and hopes and dreams, it presents us with the difficult but vital truth that we must also take responsibility for her. Ultimately, it is our job as organizers to try to understand the root causes beneath the choices people make, so we can offer them choices that are aligned with freedom and justice instead.
It seems one of the central points in Somerson’s argument that I am conflating Jews with Israel has to do with my claim that it is anti-Semitic to blame Israel for anti-Semitism. She writes: “But again this logic that ‘we Jews’ are at fault is only true if we believe that Israel represents all Jews.” Israel isn’t all Jews, after all. If Israel didn’t claim to represent Jews, then people’s opposition to Israeli policies wouldn’t express itself as such. Therefore it is legitimate to say that Israel’s behavior – both its violent policies and its claim to be acting on behalf of the Jewish people as a whole – is actually a main driver of anti-Semitism today, and it isn’t anti-Semitic to say so.
I can’t help but feel a certain dissonance here. Israel doesn’t speak for all Jews, but it does speak for some of them. It is full of Jews, and it is governed by Jews. And while Jews, like anyone else, can and should be held accountable for the things they do, creating or exacerbating the system of oppression put in place to hurt them isn’t one of those things. We know, on the Left, that it isn’t legitimate to hold an entire group responsible for the actions of some members of that group, even when those members are powerful and claiming to act on behalf of the whole group. We wouldn’t accept it for any other group, and we shouldn’t accept it here. We know that systems like these exist because they benefit the ruling class – the same ruling class responsible for the system that murders and incarcerates innocent Black folks every day, that exploits and deports Latinxs by the thousands, that impoverishes the vast majority of people in the US and around the world, the threatens our species with extinction by heating the planet, and more.
We should reject the idea that Jews anywhere are responsible for anti-Semitism – whether we’re talking about Jews in Kansas who are minding their own business, or Jews sitting in the Israeli Knesset doing heinous things supposedly in the name of Judaism. We must hold the latter accountable for the crimes they commit in our name, but we can do it in a more grounded way than by blaming them for the system put in place over a millennium ago to destroy the Jewish people. As Somerson reminds us, anti-Semitism existed long before Israel did, and will likely outlive it as well (that is, unless we do something about it).
As for Somerson’s final critique – that I lock Jews into a perpetual victim role – I wrote about our history both as victims of genocide, as well as survivors and revolutionaries. I talked about us being both an oppressed people as well as one that is already powerful, and has even more potential. I agree with Somerson that we need to reclaim stories of Jews as resilient and secure in community with other groups, as we have been in various times and places throughout history. I agree with her that we should celebrate the full diversity of the Jewish experience. And still, I think it is deeply important for us as Jews today – Ashkenazim, Mizrahim, Sephardim, white Jews, and Jews of color – to explore the ways we are hurt by the system as a whole, and by anti-Semitism in particular. We can do this without equating Jewish suffering with that of other groups, and we can do it not as eternal victims but as people on a journey toward our fullness. We should not think of ourselves only as a people plagued by centuries of misery, but we shouldn’t only think of ourselves only as privileged either (this too, erases Jewish diversity).
Identity is not static, and it is too simple to conclude that people are either the oppressor or oppressed at their core. This kind of over-simplification encourages folks to come into the movement only as one or the other – righteous victims or guilty oppressors – neither of which makes for an effective organizer, and both of which cause quite a bit of harm to self and others. Instead, we need to plant our feet and find our genuine stake in the struggle for collective liberation, both by discovering what this system denies us, and by envisioning the world we might have instead. There is room enough for all of us to grieve as well as to celebrate, to explore the ways we’ve been hurt as well as the ways we have agency, and to identify with one another’s pain and triumph even when it is different from our own. We can choose, as a movement, to see one another’s attempts to reclaim our agency as stifling of our own, or we can learn to see them as invitations to become bigger ourselves. Power is not a finite commodity, and in the end, the movement will need all of us to do the hard, transformative work to become our most powerful selves if we want to even stand a chance of winning the world we all deserve. Not only should we allow space for this kind of transformation, we should demand it of everyone who touches the movement. It is the only way we will be able to accomplish the historic task our political generation has been given.
When I was finished reading Somerson’s critique, I found myself wanting to ask her what she thought about the heart of my piece – the argument that anti-Semitism is alive and well, that it exists out in the world as well as in our movements, and that it is a significant threat to our people and the liberation of all people. I know what she thinks about some of my examples, but what does she think about the pattern? Just as Somerson has seen critiques of Zionism masked as claims of anti-Semitism, we have also seen the denial of anti-Semitism based on the critique that we’re conflating between the two. So when Somerson says we should “be crystal clear in differentiating anti-Semitism from critique of Israel,” I’m left wondering what she means, because she doesn’t provide examples of what she thinks are legitimate critiques of anti-Semitism, only disagrees with mine. Somerson says she agrees that anti-Semitism exists, but is she concerned about it? I know she doesn’t like the “loose noose” analogy, but the point is that anti-Semitism is cyclical in nature; if Somerson thinks the cycle has been broken, why does she think that? How did anti-Semitism become so benign and why is Somerson so sure that the “relative stability” experienced by some Jews today is not as temporary and conditional as it has been in other periods of our history? Or if she does think anti-Semitism is a real threat, a system made to prop up the ruling class at the expense of Jews and the movement as a whole, what should we do about it? If now is not the time to combat anti-Semitism because it might distract from more important issues or put more oppressed groups at risk, then when is the right time?
Somerson gives us a glimpse of her approach to these questions when she writes: “How does it serve us to single out anti-Semitism when most of the violence we are witnessing is against Muslims and people of color? Let’s look at the intersections of anti-Semitism with racism, Islamophobia, and xenophobia, but also be clear that anti-Semitism doesn’t currently have the power of the state behind it in the US.”
I think anti-Semitism does have the power of the state behind it; the state – and the ruling class that owns it – merely has different designs for the Jews, and always has. Anti-Semitism doesn’t look like other systems of oppression (and in fact, other systems of oppression don’t always look like each other either), but it is functioning exactly as it is supposed to. It puts Jews in a buffer position to serve as a release valve when people get angry at the ruling class, swells the support of the fascist Right the way it has for European politicians and even Trump, drives Jews toward a militarized Israel for protection, and disempowers the Left by taking this important terrain from us, setting us up to perpetuate anti-Semitism ourselves, and making it harder for Jews to show up fully and powerfully. We should not mistake a lack of (current) state violence with a lack of backing or interest from the ruling class and its infrastructure, nor should we take the relative safety of (some) Jews in the world today to mean that these conditions are permanent, as opposed to emblematic of the cyclical nature of anti-Semitism itself (Jews have, in the, past looked as comfortable as they do now, and of course the situation changed rather drastically in a very short span of time).
That being said, there is something vital in what Somerson seems to be saying: It’s not that bad for Jews right now, nowhere near as bad as it is for other groups. She is reminding us that we should be careful about drawing false equivalencies between the oppressions Jews face and those faced by other groups, that we need to make sure we’re not blowing things out of proportion, that we shouldn’t let our traumas about the past guide our analysis of the current conditions. I agree with her. She is warning that doing so might harm the groups facing intense repression in this moment, might hurt the movements rising up to a heightened level of struggle in this time. She is reminding us that many of our friends – from folks putting out powerful visions for Black freedom, to those fighting for a free Palestine – are facing much more significant threats, and that those threats even often come in the form of accusations that they are anti-Semitic. She’s right. And this is where I feel most clearly that we are on the same team, stand with many of the same people, want many of the same outcomes.
Here, though, is perhaps the crux of our disagreement. I am arguing that digging into the nuances of anti-Semitism today is not a threat to those movements, but an opportunity – that silence in the face of real anti-Semitism is not a gift to other people struggling for freedom, but a grave mistake. It lets the Right run off with the fight against anti-Semitism as its own cause, puts us always on the defensive, makes it harder to fight for a free Palestine, distracts from the struggle for Black lives, and ultimately offers no real possibility of freedom for Jews. The silence also allows our friends and partners to do things that hurt us, most of the time without even knowing it; unless we are honest with each other about this, our relationships will never be as strong and authentic as they need to be. And our relationships, after all, are the things we will need most in the enormous struggles for collective liberation ahead.
We should, instead, tell the complicated truth: That on one hand, the movement is often anti-Semitic, because we all carry the values of the system until we do the work to rid ourselves of them – and at the same time, that we can only transform in connection with each other, that Jews can only become whole again as part of or in solidarity with the Movement for Black Lives and the struggle for a free Palestine, that the fight against anti-Semitism can only genuinely bear its fruit as a people’s struggle aligned with other people’s struggles and not at their expense. We should reclaim our Jewishness not only by being good allies, but also by standing for ourselves. We need to be accountable; not by downplaying anti-Semitism for fear that it will hurt the other people we care about, but by insisting that the struggle against anti-Semitism is intimately intertwined with the struggle toward freedom for all people. We must continue on our path toward the next Jewish rebellion, not by assimilating into the movement and reaching for our Jewishness only when it is an effective weapon against Israeli state violence, but by building a Jewish community we actually want to be a part of – because it is fulfilling and nourishing, because it expresses the huge diversity of Jewish experience and thought, and yes, because it is powerful.
Yotam Marom is organizer, facilitator, and writer based in New York City, and the director of the Wildfire Project. Marom has played leadership roles in movement moments like Occupy Wall Street, has done work in the Jewish left since he was a teenager, and is a member of IfNotNow. Much of his writing can be found at www.ForLouderdays.net.