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The Intersectional Jewish-American

How the Jewish left joined the fight against global racial injustice

In 1967, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) published a two-page spread in its Newsletter on “The Palestine Problem.” The group was in the midst of transitioning from being an American civil rights group to a “human rights” organization with an international outlook. SNCC wanted to show the connection between injustices everywhere—but their soon-to-be estranged American-Jewish allies had no such inclination, at least with regards to the newly occupied Palestinian territories.

A Diaspora Divided

Twelve writers address the changing relationship between American Jews and Israel

The contents of “The Palestine Problem” were indisputably antagonistic towards Israel. “Did you know,” it read, “that Israel has remained a total stranger in the Afro-Asian world?” But what really smacked of anti-Semitism was the cartoon on the second page—an illustration depicted a black man and a Palestinian man side by side in a double noose held by a disembodied hand featuring a Star of David. A sword behind them, about to cut the ropes, was framed with the words “Third World—Liberation Movement.”

This was just after the Six-Day War, when many American Jews felt that Israel had just averted a second Holocaust. Most American Jews, including those on the left, were not prepared to see Israel as an example of racial injustice. Not to mention that Israel was, in 1967, far less deserving of that label. Faced with an opportunity to link injustices in Israel to those in the United States, most of them fled.

Historians read “The Palestine Problem” as a nail in the coffin of the relationship between black and Jewish civil-rights activists. It had already grown strained, partly because of SNCC’s institution of a black-only leadership policy. In response, the Jewish Labor Committee, which helped organize and staff civil rights marches, announced that SNCC had “irrevocably joined the anti-Semitic American Nazi Party and the Ku Klux Klan as an apostle of racism in the United States.” SNCC did not despair at the loss of their Jewish allies. For SNCC, “liberal” Jews just weren’t willing to embrace the global aspect of the fight against injustice. An SNCC Newsletter the following fall reacted to the Jewish outcry this way: “Perhaps we have taken the liberal Jewish community or certain segments of it as far as it can go. If so, this is tragic, not for us but for the liberal Jewish community. For the world is in a revolutionary ferment. ... Our message to conscious people everywhere is ‘Don’t get caught on the wrong side of the revolution.’”

If, back in the 1960s, the American Jewish left refused to get on board with a global justice agenda, today’s situation is different. Nadia Ben-Youssef, who is the director of New York’s Adalah Justice Project, names two recent moments that have changed the face of Israel-Palestine advocacy. The first was in 2014, when the uprising in Ferguson, Missouri, over Michael Brown’s killing coincided with an Israeli ground invasion of Gaza, where eventually more than 2,000 Palestinians were killed, including 500 children.

That overlap, said Ben-Youssef, generated a “resurgence of black-Palestinian solidarity.” In each country, the tactics of the militarized state felt the same and looked the same. The connection was begging to be made.

The second moment was the election of Donald Trump. He furnished the left with an indispensable resource: a common enemy whose racism was the defining trait of his presidential campaign.

Now, we can potentially add a third moment.

In July, Netanyahu’s government passed Basic Law: Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People. The law, which has quasi-constitutional status, places Israel’s Jewish identity over and above democracy. Ayman Odeh, the leader of the Arab parties in Israel’s Parliament, said the law enshrined “Jewish supremacy.”

Despite American Jewry’s tendency to romanticize Israel’s democracy, the American Jewish left was unambiguous in its condemnation of the law. Across the board, the Jewish left—from Liberal Zionists to supporters of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement—blasted the law and demanded equality for all of Israel’s citizens. J Street, a “pro-Israel, pro-peace” organization, said that the law effectively gave “primacy of Jews and Jewish rights” and sent a message to Israel’s non-Jewish citizens that they were “at best, second-class citizens.” Towards the end of its statement, J Street slipped in a radical statement: “We can fight by standing in solidarity with the immigrants, refugees, and minority groups that have been targeted here at home by the Trump administration’s bigoted and inhumane policies.”

The message: All injustice is linked. Fight for immigrant rights in America—fight the Israeli occupation. Fight Trump—fight Netanyahu. The Jewish left is no longer afraid of seeing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the context of global racism.

That struggles are intersectional has become a basic conviction of the American left. But that the conviction has become dogma for the American Jewish left marks a serious shift. When the Movement for Black Lives put out a platform that pronounced Israel guilty of a “genocide taking place against the Palestinian people,” it reminded some of SNCC’s publication of “The Palestine Problem.” But this time the Jewish left didn’t flee. While criticizing its platform, this contingent, as a rule, supports the Movement for Black Lives.

Tru’ah, a Rabbinic human rights organization, and J Street both released statements that expressed a deep respect for and desire to cooperate with the Movement for Black Lives. Others, like the young Jewish activists of IfNotNow, have said they wanted to “develop deeper relationships” with activists outside the Jewish community, including “with Palestinians and Palestinian-led movements, and with Black-led movements.” And Jewish Voice for Peace, a pro-BDS organization, endorsed the platform “entirely and without reservation.” This incarnation of the American Jewish left has no plans to leave “the movement.” For them, too, black rights are Palestinian rights are human rights.

It is possible that this moment of solidarity will be a short-lived product of the anti-Trump, anti-Bibi coalition. Even if simultaneous resistance to Trump’s separation of immigrant families and to Bibi’s demolition of Bedouin villages makes the ideology of the American Jewish left more or less indistinguishable from its Gentile allies, Jewish resistance tactics can look very different. Like activists from all backgrounds, Jewish leftists have found power in their traditions. This has led to projects like Freedom Seders in Hebron, Sukkot against Demolitions, and the recitation of Kaddish, the Jewish mourners prayer, for Gaza’s victims. These kinds of protest actions are reminders, too, that Jews have particular language and tools that they bring to bear. It is also possible that these inward-looking expressions will lead to a more effective anti-occupation activism.

Jewish activists leaning into their traditions in their activism is also a reminder that the American Jewish left still cares deeply about being Jewish, and that certain ways of pillorying Israel are likely to remain beyond the pale. There is unlikely to be a wholesale embrace, for example, of the BDS movement that seeks to isolate Israel. But it is not going to be rejected en masse either.

Still, even actions that foreground identity are unlikely to derail the Jewish left’s full participation in the projects of the American and global left. It will still see injustices in the United States—mass incarceration, separation of immigrant families, the stripping of black voters from voter rolls—and immediately make the link to Israel’s military occupation, its separation barrier, and the new Nation-State law. And these parallels are already being used to battle other kinds of racial injustice in Israel—the type long leveled against Mizrahi Jews (Jews from North Africa and the Middle East) and East African asylum-seekers. The Jewish left has gotten on the freedom train. Just a few stops later than the leaders of SNCC might have wanted.