February 21, 2020
Shevat 27, 5780
A few weeks ago I participated in a Racial Justice Summit in Pittsburgh that featured a variety of keynote panels and breakout workshops. In one such workshop, I spoke on a panel following a showing of the powerful 2012 documentary, "Roadmap to Apartheid." During a talkback session following the film, a white male Unitarian minister stood up and directed a question to me. He mentioned that this was a very important film that deserves a wide viewership. How, he asked me, can we better distribute this film given that, as he put it, "the Jews control the media."
After getting over the shock of his comment, I interrupted him sharply and said something to the effect of, "I'm going to stop you right there. I have to say you are doing the cause of this racial justice summit no favors by trafficking in antisemitic stereotypes. I think you should think long and hard about the comment you just made and why it's completely unacceptable and why I might have no interest in answering your question."
My call-out clearly clearly changed the energy in the room. I was one of a handful of Jews there, and I other than one Palestinian on the panel, I didn't know any of them personally. After I finished, there was definitely a "well, what's going to happen now?" feeling hanging in the air. It probably only lasted for a few seconds, but to me it felt like an eternity.
To my great relief, the panel moderator (a community activist who was not Jewish) spoke up and strongly seconded my comments. After she spoke, my Palestinian colleague on the panel spoke forcefully out against the comment as well, making the point that internal solidarity was critical to our movement and that we must take a stand against all forms of racism and antisemitism.
I'm writing about this experience for a few reasons. One: I'm well aware that people on the right often accuse the left of being sanguine about the antisemitism in our movement. And maybe that's true. This comment certainly indicates that leftists espouse these kinds of toxic ideas just as folks on the right do. And when they do arise, we need to confront them head on and explain why they are profoundly dangerous to the cause we purport to uphold.
I will also say, anecdotally, that whenever I've heard comments such as these, they often come from white Christian progressives. It's important to note that the antisemitic trope of conspiratorial, world-controlling Jews was originally a product of European Christianity, and later became a hallmark of white supremacist ideology. But no matter what their ethnicity or religion, those on the left who traffic in these toxic stereotypes would do well to bear this in mind: whenever they uphold tropes such as these, they are actually endorsing the ideas of the very white supremacist power structure they claim to be fighting.
At the same time, when it comes to an analysis of antisemitism, I still forcefully reject the right-left binary that is so often wielded by commentators such as Bari Weiss and Deborah Lipstadt. Too often, these kinds of arguments are used to promote an agenda that vilifies anti-Zionism as anti-Semitism. Yes, there there are ignorant people on the left who harbor antisemitic ideas. But these ideas most certainly do not define the Palestinian solidarity movement, which is rooted in the values of anti-racism and equal rights for all. Moreover, the bigotry of some folks on the left is nowhere near as dangerous as the resurgent antisemitism of white nationalists, which is increasingly being emboldened and weaponized by right wing regimes.
Although that moment in Pittsburgh was a painful moment, when it was over I realized I was actually glad it happened. It allowed us to demonstrate, in real time, what solidarity actually looks like. And if ever there was a need for true solidarity against threat of white supremacy, I'd say that time is right now.
Rabbi Brant Rosen