Institutional Jewish leaders have “abdicated” in fight against anti-Semitism

Despite sharp attacks by Zionist organizations, tens of thousands tuned in to panel emphasizing that criticism of Israel and standing up for Palestinian rights is not anti-Semitism. (via Facebook)

Haters of Muslims and Palestinians were vocal on Tuesday about the high-profile New York launch for a book about anti-Semitism and the movement for justice in Palestine.

The book, On Antisemitism: Solidarity and the Struggle for Justice, is by Jewish Voice for Peace. That group’s director, Rebecca Vilkomerson, and Palestinian American activist Linda Sarsour were two speakers who drew sharp attacks from anti-Palestinian organizations in advance of the event.

“We are insisting on a vision of resisting anti-Semitism that roots it inside the broad fight against racism and oppression,” Vilkomerson told the audience. “We know that rather than falling into isolationism that we are strengthened by and welcome tying all liberation struggles together.”

“We cannot dismantle anti-Black racism, Islamophobia, homophobia, transphobia, every phobia and -ism without also dismantling anti-Semitism,” Sarsour said. “Anti-Semitism is one branch of a larger tree of racism – we have to address all the branches.”

The panel can be watched on video.

On social media, many of the haters displayed their own Islamophobia and anti-Palestinian bigotry.

That racism followed Sarsour to The New School auditorium, where Laura Loomer, an attendee at the recent Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) gala feting former Trump advisers Steve Bannon and Sebastian Gorka, screamed at Sarsour that she is a “cockroach.”

But according to Jewish Voice for Peace, the smears did not deter nearly 500 people from attending the book launch, with tens of thousands more tuning in online.

Israel lobby smears

The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and the ZOA attacked the event in advance.

ZOA president Morton Klein has allied with far-right figures, including Bannon and Gorka, a sympathizer with Nazi-linked and anti-Jewish organizations.

Yet writing at the Bannon-run “alt-right” platform Breitbart, Klein castigated The New School for promoting “enablers and perpetrators of anti-Semitism” by hosting the event with Vilkomerson and Sarsour.

In a similar vein, Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan Greenblatt tweeted that hosting the two women to speak on anti-Semitism “is like Oscar Meyer leading a panel on vegetarianism.”

Such inflammatory rhetoric was clearly intended to smear activists concerned about both anti-Palestinian sentiment and anti-Semitism, and to deflect any criticism from decades of Israeli dispossession of and discrimination against Palestinians.

Lightning rod

If Greenblatt had any decency, he would apologize after the powerful presentations by Sarsour and Vilkomerson – they were joined at the event moderated by Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman by Leo Ferguson of Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, and Lina Morales, an activist with Jewish Voice for Peace’s Jews of Color caucus.

Sarsour, a Democratic Party activist who endorsed Bernie Sanders in the 2016 primaries, has been a lightning rod for anti-Palestinian and Islamophobic smears and hate speech, especially since she gained prominence as one of the organizers of the Women’s March that followed Donald Trump’s inauguration as president in January.

Although pro-Israel activists credited Sarsour with helping them keep the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement for Palestinian rights off the Women’s March platform, this has done nothing to stem the attacks. Sarsour herself supports BDS as she emphasized Tuesday.

The attacks from Israel lobby leaders like Klein and Greenblatt in advance of Tuesday’s panel were evidently an attempt to drown out the clear message voiced by the panelists: that it is wrong to conflate equal rights for Palestinians with anti-Semitism and disingenuous to go after this claimed “anti-Semitism” while the Trump administration and pro-Israel groups embrace the likes of Bannon and Gorka.

“The institutional Jewish community has abdicated its responsibility to fight against actual anti-Semitism – trading it for support of Israel,” Vilkomerson said, adding that this “leaves it to us to build the real intersectional movements for justice needed in this time.”

Vilkomerson asserted that the panel “was seen as so provocative precisely because we collectively represent a new vision for fighting anti-Semitism.”

This inclusive vision is clearly worrying powerful Israel lobby groups. The ADL has previously complained about and misrepresented the rise of “intersectionality” that includes support for Palestinian rights as a threat to the ability of pro-Israel groups to pose as champions of “civil rights.”

Out of touch

The ADL has long been mainstream media’s go-to source on a range of civil rights issues, particularly anti-Semitism – and, unlike the ZOA, it has strongly criticized Bannon and Gorka.

But its politics and methods are nonetheless increasingly out of step with younger people concerned about social justice.

The ADL is, for instance, deeply involved in promoting exchanges between police forces in the US and Israel, at a time when many anti-racism campaigners see ending police brutality and impunity as a priority. Jewish Voice for Peace has recently made opposing such exchanges with Israel a focus of activism.

Younger activists may also be unaware of the history of some of the ADL’s sordid activities – a generation ago it engaged in spying and violations of the rights of American Indian, Palestinian, Arab American and Black organizations, as well as activists against South African apartheid and those challenging violent US intervention in Central America.

In the 1970s, the ADL even spied on left-wing public intellectual Noam Chomsky, considering him to be an “Arab apologist.”

New approaches

Today Greenblatt and his colleagues face an uphill struggle selling their pro-Israel, pro-police agenda to young activists, and their smear tactics are not winning hearts and minds – as the enormous interest in the event they denounced demonstrates.

Anti-racism activists are highly motivated right now to push back against the degradations of the Trump administration and the hypocrisy of one-time standard bearers who are missing the mark in 2017 and who are often openly anti-Palestinian.

New approaches and thinking by activists will be needed to right a country doubling down on policies that could precipitate catastrophic new wars – for example in North Korea and Iran – on top of the ones started by previous administrations.

The international dangers are mounting along with civil strife, division and a rise in racism at home promoted by an unpopular president apparently intent on bringing matters to fever pitch in time for the November 2018 mid-term elections.

There was a power in the room on Tuesday night that offers hope of a viable alternative. Those aligned with the policies of Trump or Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are increasingly anxious about what the new anti-racism voices might accomplish – from Ferguson to Palestine.

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Michael F. Brown

Michael F. Brown is an independent journalist. His work and views have appeared in The International Herald Tribune, TheNation.com, The San Diego Union-Tribune, The News & Observer, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, The Washington Post and elsewhere.