November 6, 2023

The Left Is Not “Anti-Jewish”

What we are witnessing is an effort to get people to see slogans like “Free Palestine” as antisemitic and the protests as threats to Jewish existence.

Dave Zirin

Demonstrators are detained by US Capitol Police after they staged a sit-in inside the Cannon House Office Building to demand a cease-fire against Palestinians in Gaza October 18, 2023, on Independence Avenue in Washington, DC.

(Drew Angerer / Getty Images)

Bill Maher hasn’t been funny since the 1983 movie D.C. Cab. Yet, 40 years later, he’s still trying.

“The good news is that the far left and the far right in this country have found common ground,” he said in one recent attempt at a joke. “The bad news is that they both hate the Jews.”

Maher was rehashing the same incendiary line being repeated in an endless number of articles, op-eds, and news reports across the political spectrum: The left “hates Jews.” Their evidence for this is the rapidly spreading protest movement against Israel’s war on the Palestinian people—a war Maher supported long before it was fashionable to do so.

The same point The New York Times is making is being echoed by many of our families: that Jews are without allies in the current “conflict”; that the left is “cheerleading” Hamas and by extension the Hamas massacre of October 7; and that Jewish lives across the political spectrum simply do not matter.

These are lies that have begotten more lies. Celebrity disinformation peddler Mayim Bialik recently posted that UCLA student protesters were chanting, “We want Jewish genocide.” The post was shared hundreds of thousands of times. It also wasn’t true.

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That Bialik chose to divert attention from Palestinians facing genocide is abhorrent. But, to offer some grace, everyone is tense and scared right now. The combination of wrung-out emotions and social media creates the kind of viral disinformation that can turn this sort of crisis upside down. It creates, to use Naomi Klein’s phrase, a “mirror world,” where college students fighting against the bombing of refugee camps are recast as little more than Nazis. This is not an exaggeration, either—not when the Biden administration shamefully compares those marching for a cease-fire and a free Palestine to the fascist thugs of Charlottesville.

Right now, we need clarity—the mirror world’s kryptonite. So let’s be clear: No organization or mass of people on the left is calling for “Jewish genocide” at these protests. At UCLA, the chant, aimed at Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was “We charge you with genocide.” Given the bombings of Gaza and unchecked settler violence in the West Bank, this is entirely appropriate and true. I have been to many anti-war demonstrations and vigils since the horrors of October 7, and I have witnessed no antisemitism. In fact, most have featured rabbis as speakers and coalition organizations like Jewish Voice for Peace and If Not Now.

What we are witnessing by people supporting the war on Gaza is an effort to get people to see slogans like “Free Palestine” as antisemitic and the protests as threats to Jewish existence. This organized hysteria is yet another attempt by both the right and pro-war liberals to conflate every challenge to Israel’s war agenda as anti-Jewish, ignoring that (as I wrote) anti-Zionism and antisemitism are not the same. They also ignore that many of these demonstrations are led by Jews. Instead, these protesters are either branded “not real Jews,” in the words of Trump’s ambassador to Israel, or are erased entirely. To them, these Jews are inconvenient because they say “Not in our name,” challenging the shameless falsehood that the Gaza horror is somehow moral because it’s aimed at preventing another Holocaust.

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Israel has spent decades weaponizing the Holocaust to justify the Palestinian occupation. Now, we’re seeing that line of thinking on steroids, with a member of the House of Representatives showing up to work cosplaying in an IDF uniform and then, on the floor of Congress, comparing Palestinian civilians found in the rubble to Nazis. This is a campaign of racist dehumanization aimed to have us more upset about a fake demonstration at UCLA than the real mass casualties of Gaza. The pro-Israel conservative and liberal media are obsessed with activism on college campuses because they’re becoming aware that they’ve lost an entire generation.

Calling the left antisemitic, in addition to being a lie, also obscures the right’s extensive history of anti-Jewish bigotry. Today, this takes the form of a growing proto-fascist movement, like what we saw in Charlottesville in 2017 and in Pittsburgh in the Tree of Life massacre. Christian Zionists that make up the GOP base love Israel but think Jews will be consigned to hell come the Rapture. They are all led by a dangerous purveyor of anti-Jewish hatred, Donald Trump.

The left, which has historically been disproportionately Jewish, fights antisemitism, fights fascism, fights oppression, and has a proud tradition of doing so. The idea that the left woke up after October 7 and became anti-Jewish—or self-hating—is a mirror-world delusion. Unlike, say, Bari Weiss, who has made a cottage industry of cozying up to right-wing antisemites to slander opponents of the Israeli occupation, those on the anti-Zionist left are principled fighters of anti-Jewish animus.

The liberation of Palestine and ending the Israeli occupation is a bedrock leftist position for which millions of people—and countless Jews—have fought. It is rooted in a just demand: that Palestinians not live under occupation. Some believe in a two-state solution, others in one state with equal rights for all. But they share a position of ending what people from former president Jimmy Carter to the Rev. Desmond Tutu have recognized as Israeli apartheid. We should be proud to stand in the tradition of people ranging from Muhammad Ali to Howard Zinn in fighting the injustice of occupation.

And while the slogan “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” has been described repeatedly as “genocidal,” the slogan’s roots actually come from Hamas’s enemies—secular Palestinians—for whom the phrase meant the right of return to the land from which they had been forcibly removed. As Adam Johannes wrote, “‘From the river to the sea’ is a recognition that apartheid began in 1948 when Israel was created through the ethnic cleansing of Palestine. It is no call for genocide…any more than the call for the destruction of apartheid in South Africa was a call for the destruction of white people.” Decriers of this slogan also leave out that Netanyahu was holding up his own “from the river to the sea” map of Israel at the UN just a month ago—something that isn’t being mentioned even as he advances that right-wing fever dream by razing Gaza to the ground. It’s the mirror world again, where a chant at Columbia is deemed a greater sin than Netanyahu’s pursuing his wildest “from the river to the sea” fantasy by ethnically cleansing the Palestinian Territories in plain sight.

The notion also that the left “cheerleads Hamas” is also a lie. Liberals on The New York Times editorial page to ex-DSA members are promulgating it. This isn’t truth—it’s gaslighting. Making such accusations against a movement of millions because one person makes an awful speech at a demonstration, or a college student calls in a terrible threat, is a desperate act by a ramshackle pro-occupation political coalition rapidly losing ground. When antisemitism does appear, like the recent Halloween vandalism of a Bronx Yiddish cultural center, it must be decried from all corners.

Blaming all Jews for Israel’s war agenda is antisemitic, and it plays right into Netanyahu’s hands. He wants to use the actions of a few unknown and unaccountable individuals to justify attacking a massive young left protesting his indiscriminate bombing of children. As a result, far too many liberal op-ed writers and Instagram influencers have taken it as their duty to amplify Netanyahu’s own “big lie”: that the millions in the streets represent a surge of antisemitism under cover of aspirations for a free Palestine.

Rarely do the summer soldiers of liberalism mention that the greatest engine of antisemitism is actually Netanyahu. He has given cover to, and even elevated, the radical right wing of the United States who love Israel and hate Jews. Their minions chant, “Jews will not replace us.” He also has done more for Hamas than a million chanting leftists, funding their violent religious zealotry to prevent the building of a secular resistance among the Palestinian people. But Mayim Bialik and Amy Schumer and other digital prizefighters for this war leave this out. They also leave out that Netanyahu is stoking the fires of antisemitism in his insistence that he is protecting Jewish lives by committing war crimes.

This all comes back to a very basic question: How do we as a community best fight antisemitism? Is a nuclear nation-state in the Middle East really the best answer we have? Or would we perhaps be better off by building solidarity with others who oppose oppression whenever it rears its head? There was a time when it would have been laughable to express the former. A century ago, there were, as an elder pointed out to me, more Jewish socialists on the Lower East Side of New York City than Zionists internationally. The Holocaust and its attendant traumas turned that on its head. Now we live with the results.

The world certainly did change after October 7, but not only in the way commentators imagined. It has raised the question of how we as a people can be safe. The answer lies not in the Israel state—that’s like looking to gasoline to put out a fire. The answer lies in solidarity. The answer lives within those four precious words: not in our name.

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Dave Zirin

Dave Zirin is the sports editor at The Nation. He is the author of 11 books on the politics of sports. He is also the coproducer and writer of the new documentary Behind the Shield: The Power and Politics of the NFL.

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