Corona & Social Unrest in the U.S – Implications for the Pro-Israel Communities (Part 1/3): Engagement in the Anti-Racist Struggle
Polls of American Jewry report increasing concern over heightened levels of anti-Semitism during this period marked by the confluence of the coronavirus and the social justice protests. Recently, attention has focused on anti-Semitism coming from Black communities.
And yet, this document argues that pro-Israel communities are in fact facing an unparalleled opportunity to battle the current wave of anti-Semitism, to meaningfully engage with Black movements, and to join forces with anti-racist groups. While ‘classic anti-Semitism’ – which the Jewish community is structurally better positioned to contend with – is on the rise, the role of the strain of anti-Semitism that has in recent years emanated from progressive movements is changing in the context of the current anti-racist struggle focused on Black rights.
Indeed, the instances of high-visibility anti-Semitism originating from Black communities in this period carry markers of ‘classic anti-Semitism’; it often includes blatant expressions of racism and violence and is based on the notion that Jewish power has wreaked unique detriment upon Black communities. This brand of anti-Semitism has recently surged in public discourse through publicized instances of a handful of celebrities that espouse such views. It often echoes the logic of Louis Farrakhan, leader of the Nation of Islam, who invokes themes of Jewish power to paint a picture of a Jewish chokehold on Black rights.
The rise of ‘classic anti-Semitism’ is rightfully a source of grave concern to the Jewish community, and therefore generates a broad Jewish consensus against it. At the same time, it is broadly acknowledged and condemned within political and social discourse. Indeed, most celebrities who quoted Farrakhan – including entertainer Nick Cannon, NFL wide receiver DeSean Jackson, and former NBA player Stephen Jackson – apologized and entered into constructive dialogues following broad public condemnation.
This stands in contrast to ‘progressive anti-Semitism,’ which has failed to garner widespread outrage from society-at-large or to generate a cohesive and united front of Jewish communities that stand against it. This sort of anti-Semitism is characterized by prejudice or discrimination against Jews related to their presumed or actual association with, defense of, or support for the Jewish state; as well as a rejection of claims of Jewish historic and continuous vulnerability (see more in the Glossary).
Moreover, the centrality of ‘progressive anti-Semitism’ to the current social justice struggles is diminishing with the rise of the overwhelming focus on the anti-Black racism struggle.
The intersectional roots of ‘progressive anti-Semitism,’ which prioritize universal campaigns against diverse forms of injustice, are on shakier ground in light of the call to stand behind the one group facing the blatant oppression that has sparked today’s social unrest. Indeed, despite many attempts by anti-Israel groups during the George Floyd’s protests to draw parallels between American police brutality and Israeli conduct towards the Palestinians, this effort did not gain notable traction. Here is why:
The Ferguson Riots (2014) shaped the anti-racist struggle within the framework of intersectionality, which enabled ‘progressive anti-Semitism’ to evolve, significantly by silencing Jewish voices through denying Jews the legitimacy to identify as a collective with other oppressed groups.
Yet today’s anti-racist struggle is conceptually rooted in what can be called ‘Black exceptionalism,’ an idea that advances the uniqueness of the claims of Black Americans based on the uniqueness of the American Black experience and suffering, and on the foundational role Black people have played in making the country what it is today. ‘Black Exceptionalism is a conceptual foundation of a growing movement that aims to address systemic anti-Black racism, and is most resonantly articulated through the New York Times 1619 Project (see Glossary).
There is an inherent tension between the two notions, both influential within anti-racist discourse, of Black exceptionalism, on the one hand, and the universalist ideology that underlies intersectional movements, on the other hand. The Corona pandemic may have further elevated Black exceptionalism within the anti-racist discourse, challenging universal norms and individualistic worldviews championed by globalization trends, and increasing the focus on national, local, and communal challenges.
Moreover, large segments of American society identify with the idea of ‘Black Exceptionalism and its rising dominance within progressive anti-racist struggles (as opposed to religious anti-racist movements, like Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam), which further constrains attempts to broaden the prism to include anti-Israel and other divisive agendas.
The relative decline of ‘progressive anti-Semitism’ within the current anti-racist struggle may be temporary. But Black exceptionalism and the primacy of the anti-Black racism struggle present a very real opportunity to meaningfully and authentically engage with Black and anti-racist movements.
Furthermore, this opportunity is bolstered by the several structural aspects of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement – the dominant organized voice in this struggle –that render most of its affiliated groups ‘potentially engageable,’ despite anti-Israel statements made by some of its leaders. These aspects include: the extremely decentralized structure of the movement; patterns of affiliated groups in the past adopting anti-Israel positions as part of a global solidarity agenda, not as a core mission; the common threat of white supremacism; and the unequivocal support of Jewish communal organizations in the struggle against systemic racism.
In an anticipated extended resource-challenged period for Jewish community due to the coronavirus pandemic, given the importance of navigating the highly volatile waters of Jewish and pro-Israel positioning in the U.S. today, the community relations field will be the area that the Jewish community cannot afford to fail to cultivate. The ability of the Jewish community to engage in the anti-racist struggle in light of the rise of identity politics can significantly impact Jewish identity and continuity; Israel’s relations with world Jewry; and, ultimately, Israel’s relations with the U.S.
Notably in the background loom the yet-subtle but progressing erosion in support for Israel within the Democratic Party, and the growing gap between Israel and large segments of world Jewry. Those issues will be the subject of Reut’s upcoming subject of Reut’s upcoming interventions.
This product is part of the ‘Grand Pivot of the Pro-Israel Network Project,’ for which the Reut Group received a grant from the Genesis foundation as part of “Speak Out for Israel,” a global initiative in honor of 2019 Laureate Robert Kraft to combat anti-Semitism and efforts to delegitimize Israel, both of which are on the rise again in confluence with the onset of the novel coronavirus pandemic. Our key efforts in this context focus on navigating the rise of identity politics in the U.S. and mapping related implications for Jewish and pro-Israel community within the progressive movement.