Arguing for the Sake of Heaven: Toward an Accountable Jewish Liberation
Guest Post by Wendy Elisheva Somerson
I wrote this article in response to Yotam Marom’s article, “Toward the Next Jewish Rebellion: Facing Anti-Semitism and Assimilation in the Movement.” As a fellow Jewish activist, I was deeply disturbed by the popularity of his article that frames anti-Semitism by collapsing Jews with the state of Israel. We are at a crucial moment in the global struggle for racial justice where false accusations of anti-Semitism are being used to undermine the BDS movement and the Movement for Black Lives. As Jews on the Left committed to racial justice, we should unequivocally support these movements and insist that critique of the Israeli state does not equate with anti-Semitism.
We should always be wary about people who claim to summarize “the Jewish people” whether they are anti-Semitic or trying to elevate Jews in certain ways. Let’s assume we are a complex people,and that makes us very much like other people. – Judith Butler
I was excited to dig into Yotam Marom’s lengthy piece, “Toward the Next Jewish Rebellion: Facing Anti-Semitism and Assimilation in the Movement” after so many of my Lefty Jewish friends posted it on social media. As a fellow Jewish activist, I also long for Jewish culture to be visible in our social justice movements. But when I actually read his piece, I was disappointed because Marom conflates Jews with the State of Israel at a time when we should be doing everything we can to separate the two.
I recently got to join a discussion with Judith Butler about how false accusations of anti-Semitism are used against the Palestinian solidarity movement. These charges portray a movement that advocates freedom and justice in Palestine as a cover for anti-Semitism. In order for this logic to work, it relies on two false equations: criticizing the state of Israel is equal to criticizing all Jewish people because the state of Israel is synonymous with Jews.
The best way to refute this logic is to keep arguing for Jewish complexity by insisting on our diverse Jewish histories, racial identities, and, importantly, varying viewpoints on Israel. By insisting on the many differences among Jews, we can keep separating our Jewish identities from the State of Israel.
Marom does the opposite by constructing one overarching narrative of what it means to be Jewish, which reinforces Ashkenazi-centrism, collapses Jews with Israel, and positions Jews in a static category of victimhood.
I want to be emphasize that I don’t intend for this piece to be only a critique, but also to open up a conversation about the role of anti-Semitism in our movements at a time in the struggle for global racial justice when it feels especially dangerous to oversimplify our identities and conflate Jews with Israel.
In some truly frightening legal cases, reminiscent of McCarthy era blacklisting, charges of anti-Semitism are being leveraged against the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement to penalize its supporters. Additionally, after a collective of over fifty Black groups released the prophetic Vision for Black Lives, they were immediately accused of anti-Semitism because they criticize the Israeli state and stand in solidarity with Palestine. As Jews on the Left, we should be doing everything we can to fight back against these claims, and to make it clear that the State of Israel does not, in fact, represent all of us. We need to amplify our Jewish voices to support racial justice with no exemptions or strings attached.
Jewish Trauma Includes the Nakba
Although it feels precarious to critique Marom for beginning his piece with a description of his grandmother and her experience surviving the Nazi Holocaust, I find this framing troubling for a few reasons. First of all, I question the frequency with which we start any conversation about Jews and anti-Semitism with a Holocaust story. I want to be clear that I do think many of us need to heal from the trauma of the Nazi Holocaust, and I have also written about my relatives who survived it, so I am not exempting myself from this critique. However, because the State of Israel has cynically appropriated the story of the Nazi Holocaust to justify its founding and shut down criticism of its actions, I believe we have to be careful about how and when we tell our own stories.
Too often these stories reinscribe the centrality of the Nazi Holocaust as the defining trauma for all Jews and reinforce a Eurocentric or Ashkenazi-centric narrative for Jews on the Left. For many Mizrahi and Sephardi Jews, the central trauma in their histories was the disruption of their ancient communities due to Zionism and the founding of the State of Israel, not the Nazi Holocaust. In fact, most of Marom’s piece is focused on Ashkenazi Jewish identity without really being named as such.
Second, his description of his grandparents’ arrival in Palestine erases the structural force of settler colonialism that defined the founding of Israel. He describes sitting at his Savta’s table in Haifa, Israel, where they often end up talking about the German occupation of her shtetl in Poland where most of her family was killed. She goes on to tell him the story of her escape from Europe and how she ends up in Palestine:
She tells me about meeting my Sabba at a refugee camp in Italy, and getting on a rickety ship to Palestine. She tells it matter-of-factly, without ideology or pomp, as if this were the only rational thing to do. Savta talks about the kibbutz she lived on, and then their first apartment in Haifa. It had dirt floors and broken windows, and had belonged to a Palestinian family, gone before they arrived. She says it with a genuine sadness, but not guilt, as if to say that the world is tragic one way or another and we all just do what we have to in order to survive. Somewhere out there, perhaps, a Palestinian family still hangs the key to that home on their wall. Perhaps a young man and grandma sit, like we do, in Nablus or Amman or down the block from me in Brooklyn, and discuss the Nakba, the ruins of a much fresher tragedy lying on top of ruins from the tragedy before, and the one before that.
Marom’s narrative sets us up to identify with his grandmother who survived so much violence. As a reader, I am moved by her story and would never blame her for taking the apartment in Haifa after witnessing her father getting shot and most of her family killed.
Yet his description is troubling because it turns the structural violence of ethnic cleansing into a personal choice. It wasn’t simply doing the “only rational thing” or “doing what she had to do” that landed his Savta her new home. It was European colonialism, adapted by the founders of the Israeli state, that determined who was welcomed into an apartment in Haifa and who faced violent expulsion. Marom’s emphasis on his grandmother’s tone of resignation (“the world is tragic in one way or another”) makes it sound like the Nakba was the inevitable result of the Nazi Holocaust when, in fact, many historical factors, including European colonialism, contributed to this outcome, and many other outcomes were possible.
In order for her to have access to this apartment, dirty floors and all, another family was forcibly removed and perhaps killed in an act of ethnic cleansing. While Marom mentions the Nakba in what seems almost like an aside, he goes on to re-focus his narrative on his grandparents’ trauma in and after Europe. This is troubling because it reinforces the logic of European colonialism for the reader. It feels like he’s saying “sure, some bad things happened to Palestinians along the way – death and violent expulsion – but anyhow, let’s get back to the story of displaced European Jews.”
Marom’s portrayal of his grandmother’s story and the story of the Palestinian family who lost their home as two separate tragedies piled on top of each other adheres to the liberal narrative that there are two stories about the founding of the state of Israel. One is the story of Israeli independence, his Savta gained a home, and the other is the story of the Nakba or catastrophe, Palestinians lost their home. In fact, these are the same story: the ethnic cleansing of Israel was a catastrophe for everyone. While clearly Palestinians paid the biggest price, it was also a collective catastrophe for the European Jews who gained homes, but damaged their souls by displacing another people. It was also a catastrophe for many Sephardi, Mizrahi and other Jews of color, many of whom lost their previous homes and whose immigration to Israel involved everything from the indignity of being sprayed with DDT upon arrival to the horrors of having their children taken away from them.
Marom’s grandparents’ story could have served as a moment to examine not only the impact of European anti-Semitism on future generations of Jews, but also the impact of the catastrophe that lies at the heart of the founding of the state of Israel. Instead, Marom focuses his attention on how his grandparents’ trauma manifests two generations later in his own survivor behaviors of anxiety and fearfulness.
While I absolutely agree with Marom that Ashkenazi Jews need to examine and heal from intergenerational trauma, we need to expand our notion of what this trauma entails. Just as surely as we must heal from anti-Semitism in our family histories, we must also heal from the trauma of the Nakba if we have any connection to Israel. How are we imprinted with the tragedy that stems from a homeland being created in our names that displaced other people from their homes? How does it impact us that European Jewish lives became more important than Palestinian lives and the lives of Jews of color, including Jews who were already living in Palestine? This too lives on in our DNA. I would love to see us truly come to terms with the complex legacy of our shifting relationship to oppression and privilege.
Separating Jews from Israel
While I do believe we should name and fight anti-Semitism on the Left and elsewhere, most of what Marom reads as anti-Semitism actually seems like criticism of the Israeli state. We need to be crystal clear in differentiating anti-Semitism from critique of Israel, both to legitimize the right to criticize any state’s power and to make our fight against anti-Semitism effective.
Unfortunately, even for Jews on the Left, it seems that Israel has spoken in our names for so long that we have internalized the idea that Israel is somehow “ours” as Jews, and then we treat Israel like a hapless relative whom we must defend against outside attacks. Only we are allowed to criticize it, but by treating Israel like an errant family member instead of a powerful nation-state, we are weakening our analysis of structural power and turning conversations that should be about Israel’s violation of Palestinian human rights to conversations about us as Jews.
Marom writes about attending a 2014 protest of the Israeli assault on Gaza and seeing posters of the Jewish star with an equal sign next to a Nazi swastika, as well as other signs equating Israel with the SS and Hitler. I, too, have written about my discomfort in seeing these signs that make my head spin, but I’m not convinced that these are clear signs of anti-Semitism. They certainly indicate a general confusion about how these tragedies are connected, which is all the more reason, we need to keep forwarding our own analysis. And yes, I do wish non-Jewish folks would step up and ask folks not to bring these signs at rallies, but that doesn’t mean the signs represent a hatred of Jewish people, though they certainly indicate a hatred of the state that claims to speak in our name.
More disturbing to me is Marom’s criticism of friends who post articles about the Israeli army’s training of American police officers who use these tactics against Black communities. For Marom, although this brings up important connections, it also obscures power dynamics “as if we should take the connections to mean that Israel is so powerful that even the US war machine takes its direction from there, as if these police trainings or even Israel itself could exist without US imperialism, as if the Jews in Israel are the Americans’ puppet-masters and not the other way around.”
Do we have to assert that one state is a puppet master for the other? The puppet master analogy reinforces the notion of Israel as our powerless relative and entirely misses the point that both repressive states rely on each other and share worst tactics for controlling vulnerable populations. As the recent statement by the Jews of Color caucus points out, US police are sent to Israel “to learn violent and Islamophobic ‘counter terrorism’ methods tested on Palestinians living under occupation” while Israeli police officers come to the US “where they learn tactics of the US War on Drugs, which are later deployed against mostly Palestinian, Mizrahi, and Ethiopian communities.” Understanding and making links between racist and militarized policing in both the US and Israel is crucial for coordinating global resistance against racialized state violence.
Marom also sees anti-Semitism in his friends’ claims that Israel is the leading cause of anti-Semitism today. Marom interprets this claim to mean: “therefore we Jews are at fault for other people’s hatred of us, as if we deserve to be hated because of the actions of elites who claim to represent us, as if a minority group could ever be held responsible for other people’s categorical hatred of that entire group, as if any of my friends in the movement would tolerate that kind of talk about Black folks or Muslims or anyone else.”
But again this logic that “we Jews” are at fault is only true if we believe that Israel represents all Jews. People claim that Israel is the leading cause of anti-Semitism because Israel claims to be a Jewish state that speaks for all Jews. As it continues to destroy Palestinian homes, arrest Palestinian children and occupy another people’s land, people start to associate the Jewish people with this regime. Is this logic correct? No, but we also have the state of Israel to thank when it claims to represent us. Like many of us have been saying for a long time, the state of Israel’s oppressive policies make the world less safe for many of us Jews, and we need to keep speaking out against these policies, thereby refusing to let Israel represent us.
While I absolutely agree that anti-Semitism existed before the State of Israel and will almost certainly exist if there is no State of Israel, I don’t think the statement in itself is inherently anti-Semitic. I think it implies a recognition of the dangerous consequences of a settler colonial state claiming to represent an entire people.
Refusing Static Victimhood
This cataloguing of anti-Semitism leads up to Marom’s argument that Jews on the Left must claim their status as an oppressed people, but the idea of claiming a Jewish identity based on oppression feels disempowering to me, and ignores the complex interplay of oppression and privilege reflected in our Jewish identities. Marom’s analysis of the cyclical nature of anti-Semitism relies almost entirely on the history of anti-Semitism in Europe. Again it would have been helpful for him just to state that this theory reflects European Jewish history and ignores other histories of Jews, including Jews indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa. As Ella Shohat among others have pointed out, while this history has not been free of violence, Jews indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa were relatively integrated into their countries before Zionism in sharp contrast to how they were treated in Europe.
In discussing the cyclical nature of anti-Semitism, Marom references Harvey Jackins, the founder of Co-Counseling, who drew a diagram of anti-Semitism as a loose noose, which portrays the idea that the tide could shift at any moment. Marom goes on to say: that our current political moment defined by “the rise of a Trump candidacy, the fascist grassroots he has awakened from its slumber, the openly anti-Semitic things he has said, the Twitter trolls that have sprouted like weeds, the fascist politicians winning elections across Europe, the rise of hate groups around the country and the world, the rise of recorded hate crimes against Jews – can be seen as a tightening of that noose.”
The loose noose, or tight noose, for that matter, is an extremely dangerous analogy. The image evokes the gruesome history of lynching that overwhelmingly targeted African Americans and appropriates it for our own use. Given the horrendous state violence that continues to impact Black lives, it strikes me as incredibly inappropriate.
It also reinscribes a traumatic mentality that we must always and forever see ourselves as victims. The rise of fascism that he is describing doesn’t only, or even primarily, target Jews. Trump’s fascism is much more immediately threatening to Muslims, all people of color, and immigrants. How does it serve us to single out anti-Semitism when most of the violence we are witnessing is against Muslims and people of color? Let’s look at the intersections of anti-Semitism with racism, Islamophobia, and xenophobia, but also be clear that anti-Semitism doesn’t currently have the power of the state behind it in the US.
Furthermore, aside from the historical connotations of the image, I don’t think it is empowering to imagine anti-Semitism as a loose noose. Imagining a noose (around our necks? Floating in the air?) doesn’t make me feel strong; it tells me to be hyper vigilant, to reenact trauma by constantly searching for signs that the ground might collapse at any moment, no matter how safe I might feel, and it makes me feel like a perpetual victim.
And this is the most troubling part of Marom’s argument for me; while he claims to be identifying anti-Semitism in order to make us feel powerful and effective on the Left, he freezes Jewish folks in the role of victim, which is the same strategy the Israeli state uses to justify its aggression against Palestinians. Because when we are always and forever victims, we become blameless and cannot harm others or take responsibility for those harms.
Close to the end of his argument, Marom argues that we must become “a people again” by finding our power, but he insists that we “must also acknowledge that we are an oppressed people – not so that we can evade responsibility for the ways we are empowered, or use our victimhood to shame and tear others down – but so we can align ourselves deeply and authentically with the titanic struggles for collective freedom before us.It is the only way we will ever genuinely stand in solidarity with others, the only way we will truly become our most powerful selves,the only way we will become whole again.”
The idea that we need to become “a people” makes no sense to me because we are already a people – a multiracial people living in the diaspora, and I don’t think we need to claim oppression in order to find our peoplehood or our power. If we’re truly taking responsibility for the places we carry privilege, then why should our sense of ourselves as Jews with various intersecting identities, be frozen in oppression?
Since when has solidarity relied on us claiming oppression? Don’t get me wrong; I’ve made a similar argument about Jews using our own histories of displacement and dispossession to empathize with and stand alongside the most vulnerable people, but I don’t think showing up in solidarity requires us to claim a static category of oppression for ourselves. The whole point of solidarity is to take a stand for justice with other sespecially when you are in a different position in relation to power and privilege, or, as Melanie Kaye Kantrowitz describes it, “wrapping of two peoples in a cloak that only one has.”
The path forward
As someone deeply invested in the need for Jewish healing from our various histories in the service of breaking cycles of violence, I want to reemphasize that as Jews together in struggle, Marom and I share a similar vision for where we want to go, but we disagree on how to get there.
And this disagreement positions us squarely in the tradition of Jewish argument dating back to the Talmud, a central text of Rabbinic Judaism, which forwards the notion that we can and should engage in disagreement “for the sake of heaven.” Having this type of holy disagreement means listening carefully to each other, arguing for the sake of a higher purpose, and refusing to lose connection. I hope my disagreement with Marom can help move us toward our shared goal of becoming our most powerful and visible Jewish selves in the fight for justice.
As Ashkenazi Jews, healing from trauma doesn’t have to mean recycling the same stories that reinforce our sense of perpetual victimhood. Instead we could pause, look around, and notice that we are in a different historical moment – one that opens up new possibilities for Jewish identities that don’t rely on Zionism, the Holocaust and anti-Semitism to define us.
What if we started popularizing and internalizing (without idealizing) Jewish stories of living in relative peace with our Muslim and Christian neighbors in the Middle East prior to World War II? Perhaps we could start incorporating the breadth of the Jewish diaspora into our storytelling and rituals. We could even highlight moments in our global histories when others have stood in solidarity with us.
For those among us who find ourselves in a period of safety and stability, let’s be visible as Jews fighting alongside our friends and neighbors who are currently being targeted by state oppression. This is a crucial moment for us to unequivocally support (and absolutely not undermine) two of the most important racial justice struggles of our time: the BDS movement and the movement for Black lives. We create our path to healing, safety and wholeness by moving toward justice.
A founder of Jewish Voice for Peace-Seattle, Wendy Elisheva Somerson works at the intersection of art, activism and ritual to help envision and create the world to come. She is a somatic practitioner in Seattle.