The term “social justice” generally refers to the pursuit of fair and equitable distribution of societal wealth, rights, opportunities, and privileges.
Some examples of modern social justice movements include feminism, LGBTQ rights, civil rights, environmental justice, health care, disability justice, and more.
There are many criticisms of social justice movements, some of which I agree with, and others of which I don’t. However, something worth of note is that it’s increasingly common for social justice movements to take on a strict oppressor vs. oppressed binary. The problem — particularly as antisemitism is concerned — is that the Jewish experience and Jewish identity both defy binary social categories. That, paired with the scapegoating nature of antisemitism, a 3000-year-old hatred deeply embedded into the structure of nearly every society, unfortunately can easily turn social justice spaces into a breeding ground for antisemitism.
JEWS: ETERNAL SCAPEGOATS
Antisemitism usually manifests via conspiracy theories, positioning Jews as all-powerful, evil wrongdoers. Because antisemitism has been systemic and institutional for 3000+ years, it’s not such a leap for social justice activists to either implicitly or explicitly place these all-powerful, evil-doing Jews in the position of the oppressor in the oppressor vs oppressed binary.
The scapegoating of Jews dates back at least nearly 2000 years. When the Roman Empire officially adopted Christianity in 313 CE, they needed a new scapegoat for the death of Jesus (after all, how could they admit that they had crucified who they considered to be the son of god themselves?). Conveniently, they placed the blame on the Jews.
Since then, Jews (or euphemisms for Jews) have been blamed for virtually every single tragedy, war, and calamity — from the Black Death to the French Revolution, the Russian Civil War, World War I, and 9/11, among many, many others.
JEWS DEFY CATEGORIZATION
Jews defy modern social categories because our identity and peoplehood long predate modern society. We are a religious group, but we are also an ethnic group, tribe, nation, and people. All of these factors are inextricable from each other. Instead of understanding Jewish identity from an intersectional perspective, activists commonly (likely because of ignorance) instead diminish Jewish identity to a religious group, very much like how white supremacists have diminished Jewishness to a racial category (e.g. the Nazis).
Since the 1960s, with the politicization of the Evangelical movement and its appropriation of Judaism, this identification of Jewishness as solely a religious identity has tended to place Judaism in the same category as Christianity (e.g. the term “Judeo-Christian” values), which is an incredibly problematic and untrue notion that is deserving of its own post. In the oppressor vs oppressed binary — particularly in the West — (white) Christians are the oppressors, which would mean that Jews, too, are the oppressors, despite the fact that we have perhaps suffered the most extensive persecution in human history.*
*by this I mean time-wise (3000+ years), not that Jewish persecution is “worse” than the persecution of other groups
The framing of antisemitism as social justice is nothing new. A recent, glaring example is that of antisemitic persecution in the Soviet Union. There are two things to note: (1) because, in a post-Holocaust world, antisemitism became associated with Nazi Germany, the Soviets persecuted the Jews under the guise of anti-Zionism instead, and (2) the Soviet propaganda machine depicted Jews (or “Zionists”) as greedy capitalists or imperialists, despite the fact that, ironically, the Soviet Union itself was essentially an oppressive empire. Thus, in the Soviet world, to target Jews was to target imperialists. It’s important not to underestimate the pervasiveness of the legacy of Soviet propaganda in left (and as such, in activist) spaces.
In 1975, the Soviet bloc and the Arab League — which was then at war with Israel* — passed resolution 3379, determining that “Zionism is a form of racism.” Both the Soviet bloc and Arab-majority countries were then heavily oppressing their Jewish populations under the guise of anti-Zionism (including ethnic cleansing, religious and cultural repression, and more). Since then, Zionism in activist spaces has essentially become synonymous with racism.
Before that, Zionism was looked at differently. Civil rights activists in the United States, including MLK Jr., considered Zionism a movement for Jewish sovereignty (and thus, Jewish rights). Following WWI, when tensions brewed between the British and French over who would take over Palestine following the defeat of the Ottomans, the British felt that they had the “right” to Palestine because the Balfour Declaration had promised the Jews, the Indigenous population of Palestine, a sovereign state (that said, in the end the British changed their tune and did the opposite of supporting the Jews. See my post THE ZIONISTS & THE BRITISH: WHAT ACTUALLY HAPPENED). In the 1940s, Sephardic Jew Eliahu Eliachar stood before the UN and stated, “as the Indigenous population of Palestine, we demand the restitution of our rights…”
*technically it still is **that is not to say that Zionism is beyond criticism, because it’s not. This is about how Zionism became the “bogeyman” of social justice spaces
Jews form 0.2% of the world population. Other than Israel, where nearly 50% of the world’s Jews live (forming 75% of the Israeli population), the country with the largest Jewish population is the United States — where Jews make up a measly 2% of the American population. According to the ADL Global Index of Antisemitism, 26% of the world population harbors overwhelmingly antisemitic attitudes. In fact, 75% of people have never met a Jew. We are severely outnumbered. As such, it’s no surprise that the Jewish narrative and experience gets drowned out by antisemitic narrative.
As a form of bigotry that has been institutionalized for the past three millennia, antisemitic bias (as well as antisemitic erasure) is pervasive in education systems around the globe. For example, the way that the Holocaust is taught in the United States is American-centric rather than Jewish-centric, where Americans are depicted as Nazi-fighting heroes, when in reality, the United States not only showed virtually no interest in the Jewish plight during WWII, but also actively enacted policies that endangered millions of Jews.
Antisemitic media bias is also a serious issue. Many of the preferred media outlets of the social justice left — such as Al Jazeera and AJ+ — are run by the Qatari state. Qatar is a major donor of Hamas, the Islamist, virulently antisemitic group that runs the Gaza Strip. Other renowned publications, such as the New York Times, also have a recorded history of antisemitism; as recently as 2019, the NYT published an objectively antisemitic cartoon depicting then prime minister of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu as a dog on a leash, wearing a Star of David, being walked by a blind Trump with sunglasses and a kippah/yarmulke.
SOCIAL JUSTICE OR ANTISEMITISM?
Zionism is not beyond critique, and of course it’s possible for people to weaponize accusations of antisemitism. However, antisemitism is serious and deadly, whether it takes place in right wing or left wing spaces, and accusations of antisemitism should always be taken seriously and addressed without suspicion. Some tips:
(1) always, always take accusations of antisemitism seriously and investigate them just as you would investigate accusations of any other sort of bigotry
(2) if you can replace the word “Zionist” with “Jew” and the statement is antisemitic, then the statement is antisemitic, period
(3) in that vein, utilizing antisemitic tropes and conspiracies to “criticize Israel” is antisemitic
(4) regardless of your views on Israel, do not erase Jewish peoplehood, tribal identity, origins, ethnicity, or Indigeneity. Only Jews get to define who we are and what is important to us. If you wouldn’t do it to another group, then don’t do it to Jews
(5) do not tokenize fringe Jewish groups such as JVP or the Neturei Karta. See my post A GUIDE ON HOW NOT TO TOKENIZE JEWS
(6) keep your criticisms of Zionism specific to Zionism and your criticisms of Israel specific to Israel. Blaming Zionism or Zionists for issues far outside of the scope of Israel-Palestine (e.g. 9/11, police brutality, COVID) clearly crosses into antisemitic territory. It’s impossible for 0.2% of the world population to be responsible for every issue in the world
(7) running “Zionists” out of social justice spaces is essentially running Jews out of social justice spaces, considering 90-97% of Jews feel some level of connection to Israel
(8) applying double standards to Jews — or the one Jewish-majority state in the world — is antisemitic
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