Alexis Grenell’s January 24/31 column “Goysplaining” provoked a heated response from Nation readers. A selection follows.
Thank you, Alexis Grenell, for your passionate article “Goysplaining.” For too long, Jews have had to weigh their commitment to progressive causes and groups against the strong possibility that their Jewish faith and ethnic identity would be attacked. Call it what it is: anti-Semitism. With the news of the terrorist attack against the little synagogue in Colleyville, Tex., perhaps it is high time for progressive groups to listen to what Ms. Grenell is saying.
I was all set to dissect the anti-BDS tirade by Alexis Grenell in your January 24/31 issue. But today I’m too shaken and broken-hearted from seeing the rubble of the Salhiya family home in Sheikh Jarrah, which was demolished by Israeli forces yesterday morning at 3 am. Instead, I will share three observations. First, Grenell deploys considerable energy pathologizing supporters of Palestinian rights and proscribing our advocacy efforts. Surely if she is gifted a platform to trash tactics aimed at securing justice for Palestinians, she could spare a moment to let us know what form of persuasion she finds acceptable. Only the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement has caught Israel’s attention; but perhaps that’s the point. Second, Grenell is curiously silent on the de facto BDS of Palestinians. It seems safe to conclude that denying visas to Palestinian athletes, academics, and artists, criminalising Palestinian human rights organisations, and raiding Palestinian universities are A-OK with her. Finally, I don’t know of another instance in modern history in which the motives of advocates for justice were examined so forensically, nor the character of those advocates smeared with such unremitting ferocity, as supporters of the Palestinian cause.
Instead of maligning pro-Palestine leftists, perhaps Grenell might ask herself why she is incapable of seeing Palestinians as fully human, and not merely a projection of her own racist anxiety.
As soon as I read the first sentence of this apologia for mainstream Zionism, I recognized a familiar and egregious fallacy in Grenell’s thinking: her wholesale reduction of Jews to a monolith. It was clear where this was going when she began right out of the gate by rekindling the feminist controversy over the Women’s March from three years ago and the accusations of anti-Semitism against its leaders, in particular Linda Sarsour, a Palestinian, and the African American feminist Tamika Mallory. Grenell writes as if the charges of anti-Semitism were unanimously embraced by Jewish feminists, or even as if all Jews agree on what counts as anti-Semitism. But I and many of my Jewish feminist counterparts publicly disagreed at the time. One could argue that this kind of homogenization is itself an age-old form of anti-Semitism.
In late December of 2018 I posted a long defense of Linda and Tamika and an appeal to Jewish women to support their leadership of the march. I was far from alone; some 13,000 people read and responded favorably to this post, and large national organizations representing thousands of Jewish women—such as Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP, my organization), Jews for Racial and Economic Justice (JFREJ), and even the more mainstream National Council of Jewish Women—continued to support the Women’s March and its women of color leaders. Grenell parenthetically acknowledges that many American Jews reject the equation of criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism and do support BDS, but the main direction of her piece is to convey the opposite: that anti-Zionists don’t know our own history and that condemning Israel as an apartheid and settler colonial state is anti-Semitic.
Grenell’s rant against the critique of Representative Jamaal Bowman by the Democratic Socialists of America follows the same pattern of erasing dissenting—and particularly anti-Zionist—Jewish and feminist voices. Many of us may deplore Bowman’s failure to fully support Palestinian justice and BDS but think it’s crucial for other reasons to keep him in office. Those Jews who have continued to support Representative Bowman include JVP Action, JFREJ, and many members of DSA who also happen to be Jewish. Grenell’s denunciation of “the left” for ignoring “the experience or perspective of Jews” also strikes a double whammy of stereotypical reductivism. Who are “the left”? DSA hardly encompasses the entire spectrum of left organizations in the US, and its members are by no means unified. And whose Jewish experience is she talking about? Not mine, not that of so many of my friends and colleagues in JVP, young and old. Grenell parenthetically acknowledges that many American Jews reject the equation of criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism and do support BDS, but the main direction of her piece is to convey the opposite: that anti-Zionists don’t know our own history and that condemning Israel as an apartheid and settler colonial state is anti-Semitic.
I suggest that if Grenell wants to stop trying to speak for all Jews and to practice what she preaches, she might educate herself about anti-Zionism and its long, vibrant history among Jews in Europe, the US, and even Israel. She could start by reading the review of the new Amnesty International report in The Nation [“Amnesty’s Echo,” by Omar Barghouti and Stefanie Fox].
new york city
The writer is a member of the Leaders Group of JVP-NYC; Distinguished Professor Emerita of Political Science, Hunter College and the Graduate Center, City University of New York; and the co-editor, with Esther Farmer and Sarah Sills, of A Land With a People: Palestinians and Jews Confront Zionism (Monthly Review, 2021).
Grenell is correct that there are currents in DSA who weaponized support for BDS to attack Bowman and by implication DSA’s electoral strategy as well as J Street’s. However, DSA’s National Political Committee, reflecting the majority of the membership, rejected that sectarian posture. Conflict within a big-tent organization is inevitable and messy.
BDS calls for a boycott of the Israeli apartheid state, not Jews, and the international movement led by Omar Barghouti makes it clear that it condemns anti-Semitism. More and more young Jews are supporting BDS and equal rights for all. Kudos to DSA for holding its member Bowman to account for his votes that bear on this issue.
I would like to commend Dave Zirin for taking time from his sportswriting to respond to Grenell’s terribly wrong-headed diatribe against the pro-Palestinian left [“How the Democratic Party Alienates Young Jews: A Reply to Alexis Grenell,” online only, Jan. 27]. In fact, Grenell’s piece was not only an attack on the pro-Palestinian left, it was also an attack on Palestinians themselves and their history, of which Grenell seems unable to go beyond mainstream media tropes. Her article is replete with innuendos and falsehoods that come right out of the AIPAC playbook.
Take, for example, her suggestion that the “overwhelming opposition to BDS among American Jewry” is partly the result of “a public and oft-stated goal of many of Israel’s neighboring countries to annihilate the Jewish state.” The latter is a claim straight from the Zionist and right-wing canon, using the most bombastic of terms (“annihilate”). But which countries is she referring to? Is the threat to annihilate coming from Lebanon? From Syria? From Jordan? From Egypt? All of these countries have been ruled for at least half a century by dysfunctional, unpopular governments or military dictatorships, which actually fear or bow to Israel’s military might and the US behind it, and are perennially more concerned about their own internal problems than about Israel.
By Grenell’s reckoning, a two-state solution is Zionism’s “compromise” offer, because it will parcel out small pieces to the Palestinians inside the Zionist claim of a historical homeland. The implication is that Palestinians should be grateful and thank their oppressors for being offered walled-off portions of land—i.e., two or three Bantustan enclaves, which are then called a state—instead of being thrown out completely. How generous!
Grenell states in her piece that “DSA’s anti-Israel position is often thoughtless, self-righteous, and anti-Semitic,” presumably because of its support for BDS. BDS is a call for political help to the world at large that comes from the Palestinian people themselves. To deny the validity of BDS is to effectively deny that colonized peoples are capable of any understanding of their own political situation. It denies the very political agency of Palestinians and arrogantly presumes to speak for them, as Washington and Tel Aviv (and before them, London) have done since the beginning of the military colonial project of the Nakba.
Do most American Jews really cringe like frightened mice when hearing the word “boycott,” thereby drinking the Anti-Defamation League’s Kool-Aid? The first thing that comes to mind, as a son of Jewish Holocaust survivors, is the Jewish boycott of Nazi Germany. That was the boycott that triggered the retaliatory Nazi boycott of German Jewish businesses. The Jewish boycott was broken with the help of the senior Zionist leadership of the Yishuv, which formulated the infamous Transfer Agreement, propping up an economically vulnerable Nazi regime.
Ms. Grenell seems unaware of a recent poll taken by the Jewish Electorate Institute that showed that 25 percent of American Jews believe Israel to be an apartheid state. The membership of my own organization, Social Democrats USA, has tripled since 2017, when we endorsed BDS—not as anti-Zionists but as Democratic Zionists, opposed to the apartheid of State Zionism and supportive of a genuine two-state option. Even Bernie Sanders can stand to learn something new.
Director of Special Projects,
Social Democrats USA
In complaining that Jews should be leading the conversation about Israel and BDS on the left, Grenell falls into precisely the trap that the Israeli government has set for us all: mistakenly equating the nation of Israel with Jews worldwide, assuming that all Jews support Israel and oppose BDS, and thus branding opposition to Israeli policy as anti-Semitic. She glosses over the legitimacy and efficacy of the BDS movement, damning it with faint praise as “a standard political campaign against a state entity,” much as she understates the genetic cleansing and apartheid in Israel as simply “the oppression of the Palestinian people.” Instead, she notes that a lot of Jewish people oppose BDS—“maybe,” she says, because of the Nazi Holocaust, or “maybe” because Israel is threatened militarily, or “maybe” because “the nation of Israel” is “often used interchangeably to mean the Jewish people.” When she says “the Jewish people,” she apparently means only “Jews who identify with Israel.”
No progressive would say that the Holocaust justifies oppression such as bombing the world’s largest outdoor prison (Gaza) or the eviction of Palestinians from homes their families have lived in for generations, even if it helps explain the desire for a Jewish homeland. And the military situation is a reason for, not against, taking action against Israel, which receives more military aid from the United States than any other country ($3.8 billion annually) and whose government, under Bennett as well as under Netanyahu, continues to seize Palestinian land, to maintain an apartheid wall, and to authorize Jewish-only settlements in violation of international law, making it clear that they prefer war over a two-state solution or any other peace agreement.
So we’re left with Jews in this country taking criticism of Israel as an attack on “the Jewish people,” which is precisely the fallacious conflation of the two that Grenell bases all this on. In fact, the term Am Yisrael means “the Jewish people,” not the “nation of Israel” as Grenell says it does. The “nation” of Israel did not exist when that term became part of Jewish liturgy; the Hebrew word for “nation” is goy. This misdefinition of the Jewish people not only ignores the Jews in leadership positions in progressive organizations such as DSA that Grenell focuses on, but also overlooks the rapid growth—especially among young people—of progressive Jewish organizations that support BDS, such as Jewish Voice for Peace (of which I am a member) and IfNotNow. These groups and individuals are not “excluded from the conversation about Israel and BDS,” as the article suggests; they’re just excluded from the article.
Grenell seems to endorse a two-state solution as a “compromise position that reflects a historical reality dating back thousands of years,” but not only does that treat racial discrimination as a compromise, it also ignores its impracticality—indeed, impossibility—in light of Israel’s rejection of the idea of “any Palestinian state.” No one can seriously deny the virulent anti-Semitism in this country (Charlottesville, Tree of Life), in Europe, or in the Arab world. Nor can we deny that anti-Semitism often leads to attacks on Israel (though anti-Semites like Richard Spenser express their great admiration for the nation-state of Israel precisely because of its racist policies). But that does not mean that a peaceful BDS tactic aimed at illegal and inhumane government policies is anti-Semitic.
This is a horrifying piece. While I disagree with DSA’s stance on Bowman, Ms. Grenell’s stance is equally abhorrent. Israel occupies Palestine—illegally, immorally, and, from a personal point of view, in a manner that fundamentally contradicts what I, a Jew, a member of J Street and Americans for Peace Now and raised in a temple, consider to be Jewish values. While one may disagree with actions of the so-called left, the real problem is that of Israel’s occupation, which has no more moral standing than does China’s of Tibet or Russia’s of Ukraine.
In arguing that American Jews should be leading conversations about BDS, Grenell accepts as given the dual-loyalty trope. American Jews are not a direct party to what is happening in Israel-Palestine, and to suggest that we defer to the opinions of American Jews on this issue acts as if American Jews were synonymous with Israel. BDS is about justice for Palestinians, and the campaign targets Israel. It is wholly inappropriate to invoke identity politics on behalf of American Jews to argue that our opinion be given special weight on this matter. When America debates our policy regarding Russia and Ukraine, no one suggests we give special credence to Americans of Ukrainian ancestry. The very idea of appealing to Ukrainian Americans to lead this conversation would be absurd.
It is also mistaken to position Israel’s oppression of Palestinians as an issue about emotional harm to American Jews. Support for Palestinians should be argued on the merits, not about whether it hurts the feelings of American Jews. American Jews may get upset when Israel’s apartheid regime is condemned in leftist political circles, but that is not a reason not to do so. Ongoing efforts to curtail Palestinian solidarity on the left because of how it makes American Zionist Jews feel is a transparent and cynical effort to avoid the substance of this debate. Weaponizing anti-Semitism in this way (e.g., citing the Tree of Life shooting in a column about Israel-Palestine) is an attempt to shift the terms of the debate, and should be rejected.
Grenell’s article needs some respectful pushback. There are many prominent Jews such as Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! and Medea Benjamin of Code Pink who are very critical of Israel’s policies, practices, and treatment of Palestinians. Those who haven’t given up on the two-state solution keep pushing America and Israel to get it done. While it may seem like insensitivity toward Israel, it’s rather impatience and frustration with the Israeli and American governments’ recalcitrance toward getting it done.
Jews have been traumatized. This is a fact. Palestinians are being traumatized. This is also a fact. All people need to push to integrate past traumas and end current traumas. This can be done, and the two-state solution is the way to do this.
new sharon, me.
Grenell’s commentary resonated with me. As a human rights and social justice researcher and advocate, I frequently find that the human rights realities, concerns, and lived experiences of discrimination and persecution faced by Jewish people both currently and historically are neglected, downplayed, and denied by many individuals and institutions who self-identify with the left.
There is no sound moral basis for this lack of solidarity with and abandonment of Jewish people, their human rights, welfare, freedom, and access to justice and equality. It is made all the more painful and harmful at this particularly precarious and dangerous time for so many minorities, including Jews, as anti-Jewish bigotry and violence continue to rise in the United States, Canada, and globally. An urgent course correction by the left and a concurrent effort to reflect upon and address the ideological origins of left-wing anti-Jewish prejudice and hostility are needed. The harm they have caused and continue to cause must be repaired.
Lecturer, International and Area Studies,
University of California, Berkeley
Grenell says absolutely nothing about the illegal settlements or the disproportionate response against the Palestinians whenever there is a flare-up of violence. What exactly does she want the Palestinians to do when their land is being taken and they have few recourses? BDS is nonviolent protest, yet even that she opposes. She has the audacity to say that the left alienates Jews. Well, as a very left-leaning Jew, I can say that it’s not the left that alienates me, but people like her that think that all Jews must accept what Israel is doing because they are fellow Jews.
There is a term to describe Alexis Grenell: PEP, or progressive except for Palestine. She states that DSA and the left in general are making a mistake by offending Jews. If offending Jews means recognizing the forced expulsion of 750,000 Palestinians in 1948; the massacre of children, women, and men in Deir Yassin the same year; some 60 Israeli laws diminishing the rights of Palestinians; group punishment in which the family of a person arrested for an act annoying the Israel Defense Forces has their home demolished; extrajudicial executions, torture, knee-capping, and murder of peaceful demonstrators; and the destruction of hundreds of villages, these offended persons need more awareness.
Today, boycotting is the only peaceful way to protest the mistreatment of Palestinians. But in a paragraph critical of BDS, Grenell compares the campaign to the Nazi boycott of Jews before confiscating their assets. I see another troubling parallel of Israel’s policy with that of Nazi Germany: Hitler wanted an Aryan nation, and Israel’s leaders want only Jews.
According to Grenell’s column, Linda Sarsour stated that one cannot be a feminist and support Israel. I would find it difficult to work with a person who supported improving human rights for all women except Palestinian women under Israeli occupation. One cannot work against oppression without identifying the oppressor.