An old Jewish saying goes, “Why did God give us two thumbs? So we could say – ‘On the one hand!’ and then, ‘On the other hand!’.”
Through much of the history of Jewish thought and the evolution of Jewish values, in the Tanakh (Hebrew Scriptures) and rabbinic discussion ever since, Jews have often faced the need to choose between what at first seem to be irreconcilable alternatives – two “goods” or two “bads”.
We face what seems to be such a choice now, about responding to what seem like two different forms of antisemitism. One is the pervasive danger to Jews from a Right that is catering to white nationalism and holds great power in America at this time. The other involves the use of antisemitic tropes from the Left, particularly from people from historically marginalized groups in our society – groups toward which we tend to feel deep empathy and with whom we hope to act in solidarity.
It would seem obvious to say that for spiritual, religious, political, and survival reasons our strongest concern must be to resist White Nationalism and to reach toward solidarity with the other communities it attacks. We keep clear in our mind’s eye – as they were in the eyes of our physical vision – the photos that showed the Swastika and Confederate-Slavocracy flags side by side in Charlottesville, embodied in murder and followed by dismissive comments from the President about “good people on both sides.” We keep in our hearts the memories of eleven Jews murdered at prayer not by a Black person, immigrant, feminist, or Muslim but by a neo-Nazi encouraged and bolstered by words from the White House.
That would seem obvious – but in the dynamics of unexpected fear, other responses also surface. It is notable that within weeks of the Pittsburgh massacre, Jewish religious and political life was consumed by upset that a leader of the Women’s March was refusing to repudiate Minister Louis Farrakhan, whose ingrained antisemitism is indisputable. Yet Farrakhan, with all his nastiness, is far, far less powerful and therefore less dangerous than the White Nationalists in the White House. Why did this become the hot issue?
It may be that some leaders of the Women’s March were not aware of what, to some Jews, would feel like antisemitic comments, and that some were suspicious that Jewish emotional connections with Israel translated into hostility to Palestinians. Any such possible concerns on both sides might have been worked out if members of both communities had been able to work out the problems together, quietly. But any tensions were greatly exacerbated when media attention picked up on them.
The media excitement, perhaps intentionally in some cases (e.g., Fox News) and a byproduct in others of hunger for an audience, fit into the agenda of the White Nationalist power machinery – to focus on attacking the Women’s March, perhaps the greatest challenge to its power. The most effective attack would be to peel Jews away from supporting the March.
Further – and on this there is and could be no hard evidence — for some Jews under the great stress of the Pittsburgh murders, it may have felt at the unconscious level easier to face the weaker antisemite than to face the stronger one. We may have compassion for this shocked and frightened response, while also saying firmly that it was spiritually, ethically, and politically a mistake.
Not rage but Compassionate Challenge and Compassionate Listening in both directions is the stance we must take toward leaders of communities under attack when they use words that seem to echo ancient antisemitic motifs. There are five major factors we must take into account in this process:
First, where there is clear and deliberate antisemitism, as with Farrakhan himself, we should say so and refuse to cooperate. Where others are pursuing a whole political agenda that is utterly different and are keeping an antisemite like Farrakhan at a great distance from it – yet refuse to “repudiate” a dangerous figure – we need to listen to what the reasons are and to affirm the justice-seeking agenda, not undermine it.
Second, and transformatively important, we are living in a world very different from the world of pogroms and Jewish weakness. There is a multidimensional upheaval in what it means to be the Jewish People. This is true not only in regard to the existence of the State of Israel and of the Occupation, but profound changes in the role of the Jewish community and institutions in American society, in roles of women, in basic assumptions about sexuality, in the nature and place of prayer and meditation, in relations with other religious communities both externally and internally through the prevalence of “intermarriages,” etc.
In the previous paradigm, “Elders of Zion”-style allegations against the Jewish People of secret conspiratorial power were clearly lies and antisemitic when Jews were weak and subject to physical as well as political and cultural attack. But in our own world, critiques of specific truly powerful “Jewish” institutions like the State of Israel and AIPAC that on the surface may sound similar to those ancient slanders might not be antisemitic at all, on these conditions: If they are aimed not at the Jewish people as a whole or at an allegedly shadowy Jewish cabal but at specific actually powerful institutions; and if they are rooted in a progressive value system that is also expressed in critiques of similar institutions that are not Jewish.
We need to take this different world into account as we hear progressive or radical critiques of specific Jewish institutions. From this perspective, it is no more antisemitic to criticize AIPAC for using money to persuade politicians and office-holders to support a US policy of assisting the Likkud government of Israel to subjugate Palestinians than it would be Islamophobic to criticize a pro-Saudi lobby in the US for using money to support a US policy of assisting the Saudi government to attack and decimate Yemeni civilians – which is to say, neither is true. Using money in this way is what lobbies do. Criticizing specific institutions is not an attack on the entire community that they claim to represent.
Third, making these distinctions may become especially difficult, intellectually or emotionally, if the critiques are aimed at the behavior and policies of the Government of Israel or at the behavior and policies of American organizations that make strong efforts to support the behavior and policies of the Government of Israel. We affirm that it is not only legitimate but obligatory for Jews ourselves to make these criticisms – as a growing number of us do – on the basis of the Jewish values of justice and peace.
And for the broader sake of the value to Jews and to all Americans of a democratic society, it is not only legitimate but valuable for others as well to criticize specific organizations for specific unjust actions they take, whether they are Jewish organizations or not. The use of financial boycotts as a form of critical pressure is well established in American life. In any particular case it may or may not be wise, and different people may argue – as they always have – about whether a specific boycott is justifiable, but it is not illegitimate.
Failing to criticize and confront injustice in a Jewish institution on the grounds that the institution itself is sacred is a case of chillul haShem, hollowing out the Name of God as one might hollow out a tree so as to leave it looking quasi-alive to the eye but dead in reality. The Rabbis of the Talmud tell the story of searching for the evil impulse toward idolatry and finding it hiding in the Holy of Holies – a story to warn us that it is dangerously attractive to make an uncriticizable idol out of precisely the most sacred aspects of reality.
I believe that it is necessary to distinguish what are and are not antisemitic forms of criticism. One the one hand, in my view, it is not antisemitic to assert that AIPAC mobilizes money (“Benjamins”) on behalf of its political positions. And, it is not antisemitic to criticize using that money to lobby on behalf of US support for Israeli-government policies, to sway members of Congress by sending them on visits to Israel (but not to Palestinian communities on the West Bank), and to encourage massive campaign funding for or against candidates. Nor is it antisemitic to assert AIPAC’s policies are dangerous and destructive to the US, to the whole Middle East, and to Israel. On the other hand, In my judgment, to say that its goal is to shape a network of political people with “allegiance to a foreign country” – that is, Israel – is very close to an antisemitic motif.
Fourth, in deciding how to respond to charges that some criticisms of the government of Israel or pro-Israeli-government organizations are antisemitic, we must always take into account that one approach White Nationalists use to solidify their own power is to turn the communities they seek to disempower against each other. Thus accusations by those in power that leaders of the Black, Latinx, Muslim, women’s, or other such communities are being antisemitic when they criticize Jewish institutions must be interrogated with special care to avoid falling into this trap.
Indeed, White Nationalist ideology often sees the Jewish People as a specially dangerous force when it supports other oppressed communities, and therefore White Nationalists make special efforts to split the Jewish people from such allies. It might turn out that the charges are correct; it is more likely to turn out that they are false. In either case, what is needed are direct conversations between those accused and the Jewish community.
Fifth, Jews should keep reminding ourselves that many of the individuals accused of antisemitic remarks are themselves under great pressure, often of death threats as well as other attacks, because they may be Muslim, Black, and/or women. Some of these threats and attacks may even be coming from Jews. The targets of such attacks need and deserve solidarity and support, just as the families and survivors of the Pittsburgh attacks did – and received them from Muslim and Christian as well as Jewish sources, without being questioned on their own views.
Basing ourselves on these principles, what practices should we follow when specific cases arise of accusations of antisemitism against leaders of communities that like our own are being attacked by White Nationalists?
We should try in every such case to meet with the people accused, aiming for a conversation of Compassionate Speaking and Compassionate Listening. Our aim should be to renew alliances, not to shred them. And for the alliances to be real and deep, all parties must feel the others respect their specific desires and their hurts. Where it might be easy for specific criticisms of a specific Jewish institution to be phrased in ways that echo old anti-Semitic motifs, it is not hard to rephrase the criticisms to be just as strong or even stronger, without that taint. And Jews who enter such conversations must be prepared to hear with the heart even more deeply than the ears – to hear how we speak and act in ways that hurt and denigrate other communities without intending to.
And how should we respond to the White Nationalist power centers? By drawing on the best wisdom of our tradition and our historical experience to do our best to remove them from power by all nonviolent means, and to bring to birth a new world, more nearly the Beloved Community:
By reaching out to those who in fear and frustration helped vote them into power, offering policies and programs that deal with their sense of isolation from the future – by ensuring good jobs, universally available and excellent medical care, skillful schools, and a healthy environment of clean food, air, water, and a livable climate.
By mobilizing as voters and lobbyists, by protecting and using freedom of the press, by challenging injustice in courts of law, by demonstrating, holding vigils, striking, and boycotting, and by birthing alternative institutions.
Especially, as Jews, by reinvigorating our symbols, metaphors, and practices, as well as our festivals, prayers, and life-cycle markers and turning them into activist ways of making change that are rooted in their spiritual meanings.
All this to face the two intertwined crises of our generation: the crisis of American democracy and the crisis of planetary survival. Both crises in which the Jewish People has an enormous stake, in concert with other communities.