Various news stories recently have called attention to a quandary facing the Jewish community in knowing when to confront or walk away from a seeming ally with whom we believe we have common cause but who also appears hostile to a core part of ourselves. The difficulty is even greater when our Jewish sense of justice is mediating for assisting that ally.
Two instances point out these challenges.
The appropriation of the Women’s March movement by blatant anti-Semites and Israel haters such as Tamika Mallory and Linda Sarsour — who have stated openly that one cannot be a Zionist and a feminist, who have shamelessly associated themselves with Louis Farrakhan, and who gallingly agitated for Starbucks to drop the Anti-Defamation League as a contributor to anti-bias training — appears to have become an intersectionality almost too far for most Jewish women associated with that movement.
Carly Pildis, a strong voice for Jewish social advocacy, writing a few months ago in Tablet frames her problem as follows: “Pitching a big tent is critical to creating a movement that can mobilize for change. I have partnered with people and organizations I have fierce policy disagreements with in order to win big victories. That said, there are lines that can’t be crossed in the name of progress.” Yet for Pildis and many others who see themselves as Jewish social justice warriors, the crossing of the anti-Semitism, anti-Zionism line does not create a total break with supposed “allies” who have venom in their hearts and ill-intent against Jews.
Winning “big victories” overrides the menace Pildis recognizes as she claims to “have forgiven people for engaging in anti-Semitic rhetoric in my local community.” Even though Jewish women like Pildis are not welcome in Mallory’s tent, Pildis says she would welcome Mallory to her table so that she can discuss all aspects of hate with her.
A second example involves a trip last July by members of T’ruah, The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, to the Mexican border to ally with Mijente, a Latino group protesting immigration policies. Mijente leadership praised the Jewish contingent for showing up and “supporting the young kids throwing rocks at all borders,” a blatant reference to scenes of Palestinians throwing rocks and incendiary devices at Israeli soldiers. Other speakers described borders, fences and walls as police state oppressions, again rhetorical expressions for delegitimizing Israel. These anti-Israel aspersions were met with Jewish silence.
Following the protests, Rabbi David Hoffman, a vice chancellor at the Jewish Theological Seminary, concluded that despite feelings of discomfort at hearing anti-Israel rhetoric, he did not rue his silence because he did not want to miss an “opportunity to build foundations for a real transformative exchange of ideas,” a motivation very similar to Pildis’ having Tamika Mallory to dinner.
It’s interesting how choices are made when one’s argument comes neatly wrapped in a moral imperative that also supposedly militates against speaking out against one’s own people’s welfare. T’ruah, after Charlottesville last year, appropriately called President Donald Trump to task for his “lackluster statement … which refuses to condemn white supremacists [and] only encourages these dangerous racists.” As T’ruah set an example of finding even a lackluster response to anti-Semitism unacceptable, shouldn’t T’ruah have also had only one response to the Mijente anti-Israel rhetoric: zero tolerance?
The difference may be that T’ruah views the cause Mijente espouses as part of a progressive, social justice vanguard that is excused for being incorrect when it comes to Israel and anti-Semitism because other interests match. I imagine that’s why Pildis would have Mallory, a manifest anti-Semite, at her table but rightly would not do so for a white supremacist. In substance and projected harm to Jews, is there really any difference between the two?
The Talmud teaches us, shtikah k’hodaah, silence means consent. The Mijente leadership, hearing no counter response, reflecting on no pain or anger or repudiation from its Jewish allies, would they not conclude that the silence means that even the Jewish folks are with them, not only on immigration policy but also on the negative way they feel about Israel (oh, and maybe about Jews in general)?
Might they also consider taking another leap by ratcheting up the rhetoric and supporting the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement or any other initiative that delegitimizes Israel? At some point, Farrakhan’s outrageous description of Judaism being a “gutter religion” may not sound so outlandish to them.
Because the T’ruah rabbis and Pildis are Jewish leaders and role models, how they respond to anti-Semitism and Israel delegitimization is critical, particularly for our Jewish youth.
Many of our children on college campuses are attacked and made to feel guilty with accusations of white (Jewish) privilege, economic class exploitation and fifth-column behavior in support of Israel. Cowed into silence, insecure in their emotions and at times succumbing to a Stockholm syndrome affiliation with their bullies and accusers, our vulnerable youth are left reeling and in need of defenders and advocates. There may have been Jewish college students at the border with T’ruah listening to the Mijente leadership’s invective. What were they to think? How were they to act?
As they waited to see what their own leaders would do, did they not need a champion to say, “The words we are hearing from Mijente leadership are absolutely unacceptable!” If they hear that Mallory sat at Pildis’ table uttering useless deflections, what will the acceptance of that coarse sophistry do to their resolve in standing up to anti-Semitism?
It’s difficult to argue with someone like Hoffman who virtuously claims as an explanation for his inaction that “focusing on our shared humanity” is a righteous impulse. But we have also been endowed with seichel, with common sense as a complement to our hearts and souls.
When one’s own family, people, community and homeland is in danger, seichel should serve as a counter balance to the well-meaning impulses toward the welfare of others so that we also consider the safety of our own. While saving others, pursuing justice, and protecting the stranger are core Jewish values, the Torah also states, “You shall keep My laws and My rules and live by them,” which commentators for millennia have interpreted to mean to live by and not die for them.
Today, in our cultural and political environments where special group interests predominate, perhaps we must find ways to ally with others to accomplish certain objectives. But allies respect strength and resolve from their partners, not a one-way street where one party gives away heart and soul and gets trampled in return.
Not responding to Mijente’s anti-Zionist drivel exhibited self-abnegating weakness in the relationship and was a missed opportunity by Jewish participants to have educated a community that has a poor understanding of our history, love of Israel, the danger Israel faces in being surrounded by enemies vowing its annihilation and our pain in listening to the diatribes aimed at us.
Pildis extending hospitality to Mallory demonstrates a misplaced generosity of spirit that affords dignity to assaultive malevolence. It might make one feel virtuous in the moment but, like victims of domestic abuse, indicates that for the sake of the relationship, I will suffer your outrages and hope you will change.
No, as we ally with other communities, we must stand up proudly and make it clear that there can be no friendship between us if you spew anti-Semitic and Israel-bashing sentiments regardless of how much agreement exists elsewhere. If you cannot abide by these terms, we are perfectly capable of continuing our work in building a better world without you. PJC
Saul Golubcow lives and writes in suburban Washington, D.C.