Last week was a troubling one for our Zioness Chicago family and Zionesses in the extended NU community. What began as a protest around police violence at Northwestern University, including demands of the university to substantially alter campus policing, turned into a debate around antisemitism, centering Zionism. It has become a nationally recognized example of how much damage can be done to our movements for justice when we allow antisemitism to thrive, distracting from the urgent issues at stake.
Zioness stands with all those who seek to dismantle systemic racism and white supremacy, and work to end centuries of police brutality. Chicago Zionesses are firmly committed to confronting white supremacy and the systems that uphold it across our city. We continue to call on our Jewish community to actively participate in racial justice work, to refuse to allow fears of antisemitism to keep us off the front lines in the fight, and to confront the implicit biases we all unquestionably hold––which may cause us to react in harmful ways, as this situation demonstrates.
Accusations of antisemitism must be leveled with extreme care, not only to avoid destroying coalitions and relationships, but also to ensure our strength and credibility when antisemitism is truly present. We regret the President’s apparently imprudent accusation of classical antisemitism surrounding some of the rhetoric during the protest, and appreciate the protestors’ apology for even the perception of antisemitism vis-a-vis those words. Yet, ironically, immediately following that apology, their statement pivoted to the demonization of Zionism and Zionists. This is what contemporary antisemitism looks like.
As progressives, we are committed to appreciating and respecting each marginalized community’s perception and definition of their own oppression. When we stand shoulder to shoulder with our Black siblings in the fight against anti-Black racism, it is because we hear their calls for solidarity in pursuit of the goals they define. We believe, unequivocally, that women should define misogyny and sexism, and LGBTQ individuals should define homophobia, transphobia, and other forms of intolerance marginalizing them in America today. Far too often, however, the Jewish community is the only group denied that right by our progressive peers––far too many of whom defer to voices representing a tiny minority of American Jews at the expense of the vast majority.
It is dangerous, deceitful, and, yes, antisemitic, to attempt to blame Israel, the Jewish state, for police brutality in America. Police brutality, a direct byproduct of the systemic racism ingrained in our institutions since America’s founding, has been our reality for 400 years. Israel has only existed for 72. These libelous claims do not help end police brutality at home, or create peace abroad––but they do leave American Jews vulnerable, marginalized and afraid, and they do embolden white supremacists, who thrive off divisions between our communities.
Moreover, no matter how many times these few loud voices say that “anti-Zionism” is not antisemitic, in almost all cases “anti-Zionism” *is* antisemitic. Zionism is the movement for Jewish liberation and self-determination in our indigenous homeland, a movement to secure the Jewish future after endless oppression, persecution, and genocide, living for thousands of years as refugees in societies that didn’t want us and refused to protect us. To deny the Jewish people that right, while at the same time advocating for that same right for all others, is fundamentally anti-Jewish.
“Anti-Zionism” is not “criticism of the Israeli government,” it is the explicit undermining of Jewish peoplehood, Jewish history, Jewish security and the Jewish identity; an attempt to force Jews back into a permanent state of systemic powerlessness. Its antisemitic aims cannot reasonably be denied.
Rather than coalescing around our shared challenges, and rather than demonstrating some individual and collective cultural humility by recognizing that we all have varying levels of bias vis-a-vis communities with which we simply cannot identify, what we witnessed at Northwestern was destructive for both the movement for police accountability and the movement to combat antisemitism.
Just as white presenting Jews have no place defining what is and isn’t anti-Black racism, non-Jewish people in America have no place defining what is and isn’t anti-Jewish racism. Just as white presenting American Jews have much to learn about the struggles of other communities in America, especially the full reality of systemic anti-Black racism, it’s clear that many progressives have a lot to learn about the Jewish people, about our history, about how anti-Jewish racism operates. At the very deepest level, this shared failure is probably the most concerning aspect of this entire situation––but it also presents an opportunity for us all to do better, learn more, and listen, actively, to one another.
We cannot call out racism *or* antisemitism––we must do both. We cannot be forced to make a false choice between standing as allies to Black Americans *or* standing as allies to American Jews––we must be both. We cannot allow the erasure of Black Jews; we cannot allow these forms of bigotry and intolerance to compete; we cannot allow any distraction whatsoever from the righteous calls for fundamental reforms that would protect and advance our Black brothers, sisters, and siblings in this country.