Eons ago—in 2019—Linda Sarsour, Tamika Mallory, and Bob Bland stepped down from their leadership positions on the Women’s March board after a series of self-inflicted wounds. Aside from the widespread mismanagement that starved state chapters of funding and alienated them over trademark wars, the leadership’s failure to grapple with its own anti-Semitism (i.e. cozying up to Louis Farrakhan then offering the weakest possible denunciation of his racist, homophobic vitriol under the guise of intersectionality) exposed a gaping ignorance that many, especially Jewish women, simply could not abide.
Two years later, the Democratic Socialists of America seem determined to make the same mistake, one that’s common on the US left: offending Jews. This is a bad idea. It’s bad because Jews vote in higher numbers than the electorate at large. It’s bad because Jews have a long history of left-leaning activism. And it’s bad because—especially after Charlottesville and the Tree of Life synagogue massacre—it ought to be obvious that anti-Semitism, even in the United States, is no fucking joke.
The latest and perhaps most ridiculous example of this self-defeating strategy is the DSA’s dust-up with Representative Jamaal Bowman of New York over his recent trip to Israel with the lobbying group J Street and his refusal to back the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement, or BDS. Bowman is being raked over the coals by the DSA’s National Political Committee, and several chapters across the country have called for his ouster. In a sloppy and selective application of principle that further exacerbate DSA’s racial blind spot, the Madison, Wis., chapter has gone beyond condemning Bowman for failing to uphold Palestinian solidarity and has taken him to task over a tweet he posted mourning the death of Colin Powell: “As a Black man just trying to figure out the world, Colin Powell was an inspiration. He was from NYC, went to City College, and rose to the highest ranks of our nation.”)
Never mind the fact that Bernie Sanders—the most high-profile democratic socialist and a Jewish supporter of Palestinian rights who spent time on a kibbutz in Israel—doesn’t support BDS either. After weeks of rancor, the National Committee finally issued a 10-paragraph statement declining to expel Bowman, while repeatedly positioning the DSA as an opponent of the “Zionist lobby” and reiterating its commitment to BDS.
Bowman defeated Eliot Engel, a pro-Likud Israel hawk, to represent a district with a significant Jewish population. Surveys consistently show overwhelming opposition to BDS among American Jewry, including young people and those who identify as secular or “cultural” Jews. Despite its purpose as a standard political campaign against a state entity, BDS strikes profoundly emotional chords that can’t be denied. Maybe that’s because a boycott recalls the “Don’t buy from Jews” dictum the Nazis issued as a prelude to confiscating Jewish assets and cutting our world population by more than a third, thus necessitating the building of a modern nation-state as a refuge from mass extinction. Maybe it’s because a public and oft-stated goal of many of Israel’s neighboring countries is to annihilate the Jewish state—hence the need for an Iron Dome defense system to protect against missiles that target civilians. Or maybe it’s because in the Jewish liturgy “Am Yisrael” refers to the “nation of Israel,” often used interchangeably to mean the Jewish people, and our collective identity is inextricably bound up with centuries of forced exile from a historic homeland.
The DSA and many of those aligned with it don’t seem much concerned by any of that, insisting that criticism of Israel is not inherently or always anti-Semitic (true) and that any pushback against such criticism to that effect is inherently in bad faith (not true). The problem is that in the taxonomy of oppression, the left doesn’t leave much room for the experience or perspective of Jews, in part because we’re mostly racialized as white and enjoy the benefits thereof. The corollary to that designation, however—which is where the wheels come off the wagon—is the notion that we’re not “systemically” discriminated against. Indeed, compared with Black people, we’re not: White Jews do not fear state violence or experience disproportionately harsher outcomes in the criminal justice system. Visibly Jewish people absolutely are subject to violence in the US, though—as was seen this past spring, when people nominally protesting Israel’s bombing of Gaza drove through New York City’s heavily Jewish Diamond District (rather than, say, protesting at the Israeli embassy) and violently assaulted a man wearing a yarmulke. Those of us who aren’t immediately identifiable as Jews still contend with widespread conspiracy theories about how we secretly control the media, the money supply, and all the world’s power. When we point out the double standard on the left that routinely downplays the violence and racism against us, or stand up against our own discrimination, we’re selectively carved out of the prerogative afforded to every other minority group to serve as the authority on our own oppression. The blowback from the Women’s March included accusations that white Jewish women were inappropriately centering themselves. Sarsour had previously proclaimed that women who support Israel cannot be feminists.
Call it “goysplaining.”
Which brings us back to BDS and Palestinian rights. More US Jews support the latter than the former, including J Street (once angrily described by former Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu as a “radical US leftist organization” for repeatedly opposing him), which advocates a two-state solution. It’s a compromise position that reflects a historical reality dating back thousands of years, one that most self-described anti-Zionists seem uninterested in learning anything about. The whole thing gets collapsed into an intellectual shortcut that equates Jews with white colonists: White colonialism is bad, ergo Israel is bad.
None of this is to absolve Netanyahu’s reign or excuse the oppression of the Palestinian people. But the DSA’s anti-Israel position is often thoughtless, self-righteous, and anti-Semitic. Also, claiming that it’s worse on the right doesn’t make the fact of it any less true on the left. It only leaves Jews who are inclined to support DSA’s politics but who are put off by its virulently anti-Israel position searching for a political home somewhere else. If the left wishes to advance a framework that values self-determination for ethnic minorities, it has to acknowledge that US Jews are an ethnic minority too, living in a state with a clear Christian hegemony, where the vast majority of people are massively ignorant of our history, traumas, traditions, and complexities.