Rabbi Alissa Wise’s remarks at United Against Racism Rally

Rabbi Alissa Wise’s remarks at the United Against Racism Rally 

July 10, 2020

Click here for the recording of the whole rally

Such an honor to be here and to be invited to speak to these critical questions of our time. 

The Trump presidency has irrevocably changed my understanding of Jews in America. From the moment I heard the chants of “Jews will not replace us” in Charlottesville, and Trump defended them as “very fine people,” it all turned upside down for me. 

This was the first time Trump indicated to us that instead of working to combat such ideas, his tenure would be one that emboldens and empowers attacks on Jews. Though the rationale behind the perpetrators are varied in each instance, Jews are targets of violence in unprecedented ways here in the United States. Where we pray, shop, and live. In centers of Jewish life, like New York, in San Diego, Pittsburgh, and everywhere in between — including my grandfathers’ synagogue in Indiana.  With spray paint and assault rifles, machetes and fists.

My upbringing in a close-knit Jewish community lulled me into a sense that this could never happen in modern day America. In part because of Israel, I was taught. But as I grew and learned of the realities of Israeli apartheid, the accusations of antisemitism started coming my way. I was being labeled an antisemite for standing with Palestinians as they struggle for their freedom. In fact, almost exactly three summers ago to the day, I was the first rabbi to be denied entry to Israel for my support of BDS. So much for the idea that Israel speaks in one voice on behalf of or in the interest of all Jews. 

At times like we are living in today, it is more important than ever to distinguish between the hostility to or prejudice against Jews on the one hand, and legitimate criticism of Israeli policies and systems of injustice on the other.

And if you look at the actions being taken ostensibly in response to rising violent antisemitism in America, you find that this administration is itself antisemitic, seeking to cover for it through Zionism. Trump and his supporters traffic in antisemitic conspiracy theories, blaming the philanthropist George Soros or other Jewish people for everything from the attempt to hold United States Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanagh accountable, to the current Black-led movement to defund the police. And he supports Israel unequivocally, supporting annexation, and apartheid.

This does nothing in any way to address the rise of violent antisemitism in streets and synagogues, homes and grocery stores. Nor does it seek to develop the data we need to understand the rise in this violence and from what ideologies or beliefs it stems. Nor does it seek to address at the root the mistrust and hatred of Jews as Jews. 

All it does is seek to condemn Palestinians to endless occupation and exile.

In December Trump signed an Executive Order on antisemitism which relies on a definition that likens anti-Zionism with antisemitism. To date, the United States government has opened investigations into at least six universities in an attempt to silence advocacy for Palestinian rights. As Trump’s Executive Order negligently suggests, students on college campuses are NOT being challenged because they are Jewish, but because of their ideas and actions. Just as Israel is being judged as a country with a violent military repressing Palestinian families, not for being a so-called Jewish state. To suggest that critiquing the Israeli state is a form of Jew hatred is a deliberate strategy of those who seek to maintain Israel’s status quo, who liken these political disagreements with antisemitism.

But we must refuse to allow a political debate to be labeled a hate crime. We must not allow fear to rationalize oppression.

The way these accusations of antisemitism are wielded involves insisting antisemitism is a phenomenon that operates uniquely from all other forms of racism. This is dangerous because, as Black American writer, activist, and professor Keeanaga Yamahta Tayler noted: “history is cumulative, not cyclical”  — we must learn from the past and allow that to inform liberation strategies for today. 

Take for example when Jews didn’t have citizenship rights in Christian Europe. There were limits on what jobs Jews could have and where Jews could live. At the same time this was happening, white, Christian Europeans were busy colonizing other places around the globe, including here in the United States. The logic that discriminated against Jews was the same logic that justified colonialism — racism that privileged white Christian Europeans, where Black people and Indigenous people could be stolen, controlled, even murdered. It was precisely in those centuries that the version of whiteness that still has us by a stranglehold was being created and consolidated. And yes, this is the same idea behind Zionism. 

As many on this rally we have heard from today know all too intimately — whiteness has long been wielded as a weapon and many of my fellow white people have been convinced to side with and participate in it — thinking that it’s for their own safety. But since 11 Jews were murdered while in prayer in Pittsburgh, a large and growing segment of the Jewish Left has emerged with a different vision — the one that motivates me as a rabbi who is part of the movement for Palestinian freedom: solidarity.

This vision imagines a common fight where we push back against the way white supremacist power is being wielded — including how it impacts the mental health, economic stability, and social cohesion of communities which can lead people of color to turn on each other and on Jews instead of on whiteness. 

In the Jewish day school, summer camps, and synagogue that I was in growing up, the message I received was pretty crystal clear: the world turned their backs on Jews and that is what got us killed. We are alone in the world and therefore must be focused on taking care of ourselves and our own.

In my now two decades doing this work for Palestinian human rights, the main thing I have learned is how dead wrong that mindset is. If we are to be sure that we are safe as Jews, we have to work to ensure that all people are safe and free. 

Israel knows these connections between people and movements are powerful enough to challenge its over 70 years of dispossession. That’s why BDS scares them so much. The good news is that Israel’s repressive strategies aren’t strong enough to stop people from making connections between their struggles for justice — as today’s rally powerfully demonstrates.

Being a part of this movement that will realize equal rights for Palestinians, fight antisemitism, and resist anti-Black racism is medicine. 

So, thank you to all of you I am sharing this virtual stage with today for allowing this healing of ourselves, each other and our world to do its work. Onward!



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