Sunrise Movement demonstration in Washington D.C. in Sept. 2020. (Photo/RNS-Geoff Livingston-Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
Sunrise Movement demonstration in Washington D.C. in Sept. 2020. (Photo/RNS-Geoff Livingston-Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

When progressives betray their Jewish allies

The novelist Rebecca West once said that Jews, having suffered so much, have an “unsurprisable mind.”

She was right. Nothing should surprise me much anymore — especially when it comes to antisemitism.

And yet, here I am — shocked by the recent announcement from the Washington, D.C., branch of Sunrise, a national climate action group, that they would be pulling out of a voting rights rally because “a number of Zionist organizations” will be participating.

Those organizations include: the National Council of Jewish Women, the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs as groups supporting Israel, which Sunrise DC called a “colonial project.”

Note, as well:

Not mentioned in the Sunrise DC statement are two other Jewish groups belonging to the same coalition, Bend the Arc and Workers Circle. Bend the Arc has no position on Israel and Workers Circle backs the two-state solution, but has been highly critical of Israel, and has called on the U.S. government to condition aid to Israel on its human rights record.

Translation: there are “good” Jewish groups — those that are non-Zionist or strongly critical of Israel — and “bad” Jewish groups — those that support Israel and Zionism. Even if those groups agree with other items on the liberal/progressive agenda — environmental activism and voting rights — their Zionism makes them, well, treif.

It is easy to see how this binary, almost Manichean system — good Jewish groups/bad Jewish groups — can morph into good Jews/bad Jews.

That is classic antisemitism, especially in its modern European variety. As the Jewish enlightenment and emancipation swept through central Europe, the good Jews were those who acted modern, i.e., like their fellow non-Jewish citizens.

The bad Jews were those who clung to their annoying “tribal,” “traditional” ways — and therefore, could not be easily assimilated.

That is how it is now playing out on the progressive left. The “bad Jews” are the Zionists.

How should liberal Jewish groups respond?

With the same calm, measured, yet principled stance as my favorite liberal Jewish group, my home base, my professional and personal homepage — the Reform movement.

I was very happy to see this statement from the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center in response to Sunrise:

“The failure of the Sunrise movement to speak clearly in condemnation of the offensive statement this week from their Sunrise DC hub that sought to erase the presence of the RAC, NCJW, and JCPA from the fight for voting rights, is shameful. The statement and tepid response seem to be an indication that they consider the Jewish community expendable in the fight for social justice and comes perilously close to fomenting antisemitism.

“Our commitment to voting rights for all Americans is not contingent on who will stand with us. It is deeply rooted in our Jewish faith, and we refuse to let the actions of one organization distract us from our mission to protect access to the ballot for everyone.

“Let’s be clear: we do not consider our work on voting rights to be in conflict with our progressive Zionist principles, nor do we consider these beliefs to be an impediment to our tireless work fighting for the human rights of Palestinians and a peaceful resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

This statement recognizes, first, that progressive groups are increasingly demanding “erasure” of Israel-supporting and Zionist groups — or, at the very least, that those groups leave those commitments at the door.

Second, it recognizes that such progressive groups do not really value Jewish partners and will, in fact, betray them.

I am hoping that the RAC’s statement will signal a new willingness on the part of liberal Jewish groups to publicly call out the anti-Israel statements that emanate from the progressive left. Such anti-Israel statements are not only hateful, in and of themselves; they are also an example of bad faith. They are a bad strategic move, alienating those liberal groups that have been willing allies and fellow activists in so many causes.

Like, for example, voting rights. Sunrise should realize, as should Reform Jews, that the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was partially drafted in the library of the Religious Action Center library.

The RAC is not moving away from its commitments to the larger issues — voting rights, environmental activism, etc. Nor should it. That would be petulant, too easy and ineffective.

Far better to do what it has always done — to stand up, to stand with and to stand by. It is not self-abasement nor self-erasure to do this; it is standing by our values, which are far more important than the small immature acts of other groups.

Moreover, tochecha — honest reproof, even and especially of friends and allies, is a mitzvah. It leads to a more honest, open relationship, and such relationships are what we desperately need in these times.

I take these words of Blake Flayton, of the New Zionist Congress, to heart:

“We aim to transform ourselves. From crouching to standing, from defending to affirming, from shame to pride. We will not beg for scraps in exchange for a seat at a hostile table. It is our Zionism that inspires us to build our own spaces, amplify our own words, and to reject any movement that mandates we sacrifice part of ourselves to be welcomed.”

I hope that progressive Jews will say to their partners and allies: We will walk with you. But do not expect us to sacrifice any part of ourselves.

It is called integrity.

That, too, is a mitzvah.

Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin

Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin is the spiritual leader of Temple Israel in West Palm Beach, Florida, and the author of numerous books on Jewish spirituality and ethics, published by Jewish Lights Publishing and Jewish Publication Society.


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