Showing up as a progressive Zionist in activist spaces
Guest columnist

Showing up as a progressive Zionist in activist spaces

Sara Stock Mayo gives her perspective on the Women's March

Photo by Lauren Rosenblatt
Photo by Lauren Rosenblatt

I had the honor of speaking last month at Pittsburgh’s Women’s March. While the national leadership was under intense scrutiny, many felt it important that the local march embraced two Jewish speakers: Rebecca Glickman, a 17-year-old who mentioned the names of every victim of the Tree of Life shooting, and myself, a liberal Zionist who stated this as part of my identity in my remarks. Not everyone in the Jewish community understood my decision to speak, but through many conversations with people who have varied beliefs, I felt encouraged to share my experiences being a progressive activist during a time of increasing divisiveness in our country.

We are divided in our beliefs, but even more divided by our inability to engage with others who feel differently. Throughout my various experiences of working in the Jewish community, I have strived for balance and nuance, which these days are harder to come by.

A lot has been said lately about anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism (both separately and intertwined) in leftist activist movements. It needs to be addressed, no doubt. It is difficult to navigate complicated narratives and relationships within movements, and many find their backs against a wall when trying to formulate opinions on whether to stay or to leave.

For anyone who considers themselves left of center, there is a deep feeling of loss when having to confront this. When one’s passions, ideals and pursuit of justice align with other like-minded groups, it is understandable to feel betrayed by the very people who claim to have provided “safe spaces” where your voice has been valued in the past.

It is important to recognize that everyone’s lived experience and pain must be seen and acknowledged. Perhaps the larger question is how we choose to move through the pain and create opportunities for growth and reconciliation. There is no one right way to engage in difficult conversations. We all must lead with good intentions and try to assume the best intentions of others, while we build relationships grounded in trust.

And yet, there is an understandable amount of mistrust amongst progressive Zionists, and herein lies the greatest tension. While many Jews on the “new left” consider themselves anti-Zionist, there are those of us who remain steadfast in embracing Israel as our national Jewish identity. We would like to be able to be “both/and” rather than “either/or,” but as the United States becomes more polarized on both the right and the left, we are often put in positions of choosing a side that doesn’t allow for expression of our full identity. Some of us choose to remain in these spaces and call out anti-Semitism when we see it, but this has become a cumbersome and lonely task.

It is essential to dismantle all systems of oppression, ranging from white supremacy to discrimination against LGBTQ communities, to sexism, Islamaophobia and anti-Semitism. All of these things fall under the category of white nationalism, the biggest threat to all marginalized groups. While anti-Semitism is a very real issue on the left, there is a false equivalency when comparing this to anti-Semitism on the right. Rhetoric on the left is triggering and unacceptable, but the actions of those who fall under the umbrella of white nationalism seek to destroy us entirely.

People on the left need to be educated to use the term “Zionism” in the correct context and not as code for racism, apartheid and slavery, as it is often referred to in progressive spaces. Progressive Zionists see criticism of Israel’s ongoing occupation as a moral imperative. And yet, we will not descend into the anti-Israel hate speech and one sided-narrative being spun by the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement. Some of us even consider BDS as a valid form of non-violent protest and are able to see the fine line between economic pressure through boycott and the desire to wipe Israel from the map. Protest is valid and oftentimes warranted — eliminating the state of Israel is not.

So, where do we go from here? How do we stay in dialogue with the progressive left? How can we be both activists and bridge builders? While I don’t have answers, I know that I am not willing to give up hope. Silence in the face of injustice is never an option, but we cannot allow others to define the entire agenda.

This is complex, messy and painful work, and mine is certainly only one perspective, but it is my way forward. I welcome dialogue with anyone willing to come to the table who cares to listen deeply, show respect and concern, and be open to growth in committed dialogue which is only borne of real relationships. PJC

Sara Stock Mayo is the director of Ruach and Music at Temple Ohav Shalom and co-leader of the independent minyan Chavurat Shirah. She is involved in social justice movements and is the managing director of Pittsburgh Playback Theatre.

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