New front in ‘antisemitism’ battle is anti-Zionists’ alleged denial of Jewish historical ‘experience’ and ‘intergenerational trauma’

Jonathan Greenblatt at the ADL conference, last November (screenshot from ADL video)

Philip Weiss

Mondoweiss  /  December 10, 2021 

The anti-Zionist understanding that Israel is a powerful settler-colonial state is antisemitic because that leaves out the origins of Zionism in Jewish persecution in Europe, according to Jonathan Greenblatt of ADL and the Reut Group of Tel Aviv.

In the last few weeks, Israel advocates have pushed a new front in the battle over the discourse on Palestine: They say that progressive are antisemitic when they characterize Jews as privileged, and don’t acknowledge history and “the unique collective Jewish vulnerability.”

So the anti-Zionist understanding that Israel is a powerful settler-colonial state is antisemitic because that leaves out European history and the origins of Zionism. Or criticizing the Israel lobby (as I do frequently) is antisemitic because it decontextualizes American Jewish history and fails to acknowledge the “Jewish experience”: Jews were the subject of discrimination in the U.S. several decades ago and still experience “intergenerational trauma.”

These advocates are trying to further expand the definition of antisemitism, so as to protect Israel from criticism.

Here are three recent examples of the effort.

Oren Jacobson is a pro-Israel speaker who appeared at the Anti-Defamation League conference last month to denounce “antisemitic activity in progressive spaces.” Jacobson said that when progressives speak of Jewish privilege today, they erase Jewish history and “our intergenerational trauma,” and that’s antisemitic.

There are individuals who are erasing you and us and our past, sometimes intentionally and disingenuously, and other times accidentally because they don’t fully understand who and what it is to be a Jew. Especially if they’re looking at the world through more of a racialized lens and they see us as white, it’s easy to push us to the side… when in fact the color of our skin has never actually been determinative of our safety…

We have to sit down and explain to them, Who we are, what antisemitism is, and how antisemitism works. If they are genuinely progressives they will come to recognize as they get more context, that erasing, excluding, dehumanizing or pretending that our intergenerational trauma isn’t real, is unacceptable. Acting as if their perspectives on Jewish lives and Jewish experiences can be understood simply by thinking about their experiences in their lifetime in their country, be it America or anywhere else, is fundamentally inaccurate, it is an act of privilege, to be clear– to act as if what you experience in America over the last several decades or anywhere else in the world is an accurate representation of what Jewish history looks like.

Jonathan Greenblatt, the head of the ADL, addressed the same conference on November 10 and made a similar argument. He said leftwing critics of Israel have adopted a view that Jews are white oppressors, thereby ignoring the “Jewish experience” of discrimination in the past. He gave as examples the left’s reference to two negative paradigms for Israel/Palestine that do not fit the facts: American race relations and settler-colonialism. The left is trying “to conflate the Jewish state with the misdeeds of others” so as to discredit it, Greenblatt said.

Greenblatt began by likening supposed leftwing antisemitism “to climate change”:

[T]he environment is becoming more hostile and the conditions threaten to upend life as we know it if we simply sit back and do nothing. What’s taking hold is at worst a belief that all Jews somehow are oppressors, part of a white establishment that has exploited racial and ethnic minorities for generations… This would come as a big surprise to my grandparents who fled Europe for their lives only to come to this country to experience discrimination. ..

Now it’s crucial that we realize that despite all the laws on the books and the hard progress that’s been made, there is still discrimination against African Americans, Latinos, Asian-Americans, Muslims and other minorities in our country today. But to claim to fight for justice for all yet ignore the Jewish experience is not just wrong, it’s dangerous, an ugly form of historical revisionism motivated by malice. The same goes for using the lens of American race relations to try to explain the complex and completely-unrelated Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It makes no sense. Yet voices on the left growing louder and louder are embracing these views…

Now don’t get me wrong, there certainly are things that the Israeli government has done that deserve rebuke. but criticizing the actions of a government is categorically different than deeming it illegitimate because of wildly inaccurate claims that it is instituting an apartheid or leading a genocide…

Slandering Israel as settler colonial or white supremacist is flat out wrong on the facts and little more than a deliberate effort to conflate the Jewish state with the misdeeds of others in order to degrade its support and condition the public for its demise. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, anti-Zionism is antisemitism…

The third example came out the other day and is similar to Greenblatt’s line. I wonder if they are all talking.

The Reut Group is a Tel Aviv think-tank that provides the Israel lobby with arguments to make in support of Israel. It has published a new paper on the supposed alliance of progressive groups and conservative Islamic forces trying to delegitimize Israel. The paper says that the left is antisemitic because it characterizes Jews as powerful, thereby failing to “capture the exceptional challenges, history, and experience of Jewish life in the US.”

Jews get cast as privileged because of high economic status, and Israel is cast as a colonial enterprise. But that’s unfair.

Jews are catalogued among progressive groups as white and privileged, with a certain degree of responsibility for the current social power structure the progressive movement is battling. In the progressive discourse, the State of Israel is catalogued as a European colonial enterprise. In this way, the progressive discourse fails to capture the exceptional challenges, history, and experience of Jewish life in the US, as well as the unique circumstances and challenges around the establishment and existence of the State of Israel.

This dynamic creates what the Reut Institute calls ‘Jewish-Israeli erasure in the progressive discourse’; i.e. the way in which Jews are catalogued in the progressive discourse undermines, in practice, the Jewish right to define their own identity, values, narrative, and relations with Israel. Cataloging Jews as privileged dismisses Jewish legitimization to allege discrimination or any kind of harm and makes it difficult to cope with antisemitism.

Reut makes the same complaint that Jonathan Greenblatt does: the left is using the lens of the civil rights movement and forgetting the Jewish “experience” of discrimination and “the unique collective Jewish vulnerability.”

There is an obvious mismatch between characteristics of the contemporary progressive discourse and the Jewish experience in the US – the terminology, symbols, and values of the progressive discourse is mainly fed from the experience of African-Americans. The incongruence between the characteristics of this discourse and the Jewish experience results in Jews frequently being perceived as party that bears responsibility for the mechanism of white social oppression. In the progressive discourse, Jews are perceived as privileged whites, and consequently it fails to capture the unique collective Jewish vulnerability.

As a result, Israel and American Jewry are practically ‘erased’ in the progressive discourse…. Characteristics of the contemporary progressive discourse deny, usually unconsciously, the right of Jews to define themselves, either individually or collectively, the basic elements of their identity, including their relations to Israel, the challenges that they face. The progressive discourse does not recognize the current discrimination against Jews and their vulnerabilities, and it rejects the self-perception of many Jews on themselves as a people.

Again, the concern here isn’t really with antisemitism but anti-Zionism. The progressive “discourse poses a national security challenge for the State of Israel, because it ultimately undermines the relationship between Israel and the US, the bipartisan support for Israel and the relations of the Jewish State with American Jews.” Yes but what if I don’t like Israeli apartheid? Reut has no answer to that.

That’s what progressives care about, what’s happening to Palestinians right now. They think it’s unconscionable and something must be done about it. In my experience, these activists don’t deny the Jewish historical experience or for that matter intergenerational trauma. The people I know would respect those ideas, but wouldn’t allow that background to blind them to the reality. For myself, I’ve often said that I would likely have been a Zionist if I were living in Prague or Warsaw in the 1920s (and growing up in the family I did). But the ideology hasn’t aged well.

Philip Weiss is senior editor of Mondoweiss.net and founded the site in 2005-2006