Is there still room for Zionist Jews on the American left?

Members of Sunrise DC, a progressive climate activist group.

By Jonathan S. Tobin

Oct. 23 was going to be a happy day of liberal solidarity. A broad coalition of some 200 groups were planning on heading to Washington to demonstrate on behalf of congressional passage of a pair of Democratic bills that claim to secure voting rights, as well as a proposal for statehood for the District of Columbia.

The rally, organized by the “Declaration for American Democracy,” was expected to be a left-wing feel-good event. One of the groups that was not only planning to attend, but which had reportedly been offered a speaker’s slot at the rally, spoiled the party.

The DC chapter of the Sunrise Movement, which The Washington Post described as a national “youth-led climate organization,” pulled out of the rally over the participation of three Jewish groups: the Jewish Council on Public Affairs (JCPA), the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism (RAC) and the National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW). Sunrise DC further demanded that the Declaration of American Democracy expel the three Jewish groups for being “in alignment with and in support of Zionism and the State of Israel.” As far as Sunrise DC is concerned, “We believe that the fight for statehood and sovereignty are incompatible with Zionism.”

The response from the three in question, in addition to other liberal Jewish groups like the Anti-Defamation League, was immediate and angry. ADL head Jonathan Greenblatt has focused most of his organization’s attention on right-wing antisemitism as part of its transformation into just one more partisan Democratic agency. But he rightly denounced the Sunrise statement as a “vilification of Jewish nationhood and a litmus test for all who support it. This is anti-Semitic — plain and simple.”

Two other left-wing Jewish groups — Workers Circle and Americans for Peace Now — are part of the rally’s coalition but weren’t mentioned in Sunrise DC’s statement. Peace Now, which is harshly critical of Israel though supports Zionism and a two-state solution to the conflict with the Palestinians, was equally outraged. Hadar Suskind, the group’s CEO tweeted, “Wow. This is immensely wrong,” in response to the call for ousting Zionist groups from the left.

While they were joined in these denunciations by the Reform movement and groups like the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington, the response from the rally’s organizers and the national Sunrise movement was discouraging. Both issued statements, reported in the Post, about their belief in inclusion and the broad nature of their efforts. But their failure to condemn Sunrise DC’s statement, which included a raft of libelous and false accusations about Israel, or the idea that Zionist Jews should not be welcomed on the left was just as disturbing. The fact that the other non-Jewish participating groups didn’t seem to have anything to say about this is equally troubling.

In one sense, the failure to condemn this act of open antisemitism remains puzzling. Having a supposedly nonpartisan group like the JCPA, which is the national association of all JCRCs in the United States, join in this coalition, along with more predictably partisan groups like the RAC and NCJW, was a coup for the organizers. Mainstream liberal Jewish groups like them are an important asset to activists looking to mobilize donors and volunteers to join in these efforts. Bringing them into a big Democratic tent costs them nothing, especially since these Jewish organizations have no qualms about making common cause with extremist groups like Code Pink, which is also hostile to Israel and Zionism.

But as anyone who has been paying attention to the growing power of the left in Democratic Party circles would know, most liberals have been reluctant to confront or condemn antisemitism from this sector. The same is true for leaders like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, who have shown in the past three years that they believe discretion is the better part of valor when dealing with the loud and growing faction of their party that supports the antisemitic BDS movement.

Though the Jewish groups it targeted were clearly shocked by the broadside, Sunrise DC’s attack on Jews is hardly surprising. Despite being a pack of lies, the notion that all of Israel is a “colonial project” oppressing the supposedly indigenous black and brown people of “Palestine,” where Jews are privileged white settlers, is in line with the ideological frame of reference used by many left-wing activists these days.

Liberal Jews who are fine with applying that kind of rhetorical excess to their political opponents on the Israeli right are slowly realizing that their comrades in arms on American domestic issues make no such distinctions between “good” Israelis and Jews, and the supposedly “bad” ones.

Once they get over their shock at this incident and the failure of their coalition partners to unequivocally condemn this latest outbreak of left-wing antisemitism, mainstream liberal Jewish groups will console themselves by saying that Sunrise DC is marginal and doesn’t speak for most Democrats. To some extent, that will be true. The problem is that the divide on this issue seems to be as much generational as it is ideological, guaranteeing that the ranks of the anti-Zionists among Democrats will grow even more numerous.

For now, Jewish liberals can claim that they are still at home amid rallies like this one. But the time will come when they will no longer be able to pretend that a Jew who embraces Israel will be welcomed in an increasingly antisemitic American left.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

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