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Jordan Goldwarg, Aneela Afzali: Progressives Must Stop Weaponizing Charges of Anti-Semitism Against Critics of Israel

It is shocking that the main targets of outrage over anti-Semitism have been members of marginalized communities on the progressive left who are critical of the administration and Israeli policies, as opposed to those posing a real threat to Jews, Muslims, and Blacks alike in our country.

As an American Jew and an American Muslim, we find the cycle of attacks on Congresswoman Ilhan OmarCongresswoman Rashida TlaibDr. Marc Lamont HillTamika MalloryLinda SarsourAngela Davis, and others deeply troubling. These attacks reflect a weaponization of the “anti-Semitism” charge against certain individuals (especially Muslim and/or Black leaders supporting Palestinian human rights), which turns progressive allies against each other and ignores the real source of physical threat to our Jewish (and Muslim and Black) siblings. 

There is no doubt that anti-Semitism is alive and well. The FBI reported a 37% increase in anti-Semitic crimes from 2016 to 2017 (the most recent year for which data is available). Islamophobia has also increased sharply in recent years, as we face some of the highest levels of anti-Muslim hate crimes in our nation’s history along with hateful rhetoric and policies from the highest levels of our government (such as the Muslim Ban). And Black Americans are still victims of hate crimes more than any other group in our country, with a 16% increase from 2016 to 2017.

With the Jewish, Muslim, and Black communities (among others) under increased attack, it is worth inquiring into the source of the threat. Research makes clear that it is predominantly white men from the extreme right who perpetrate hate crimes against Jews, Muslims, and Black Americans (not to mention against immigrants, Latinx people, Asians, transgender people, and other marginalized communities). The rhetoric, proposals and actions of the current administration have further provided fuel for the increased hate in our country, and constitute direct attacks on the rights of many marginalized communities.   

Despite all this, and even after a neo-Nazi gunman last year committed the deadliest anti-Semitic attack in US history (the Tree of Life synagogue massacre in Pittsburgh), it is shocking that the main targets of outrage over anti-Semitism have been members of marginalized communities on the progressive left who are critical of the administration and Israeli policies, as opposed to those posing a real threat to Jews, Muslims, and Blacks alike in our country.  (Notably, the final straw that motivated the Pittsburgh shooter was the synagogue’s work with Muslim refugees.)

It is important to ask why marginalized community members are the main targets of outrage, and who benefits when marginalized groups are pitted against each other. Indeed, who benefits when progressive movements are undermined?

Rep. Ilhan Omar, an outspoken and successful American Muslim Black woman, embodies the very threat to patriarchal white supremacy and colonialism that many in power find so disturbing. That alone is enough to provoke predictable attacks against her from some. But she has further broken the majority silence by US politicians when it comes to pro-Israel lobby efforts, and — with Rep. Rashida Tlaib — openly supports the BDS (Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions) movement to pressure Israel to comply with international law. Given the widespread support for Israel from politicians of both parties, her statements have also provoked attack from liberals, and it is these attacks that we find particularly disturbing — and, indeed, dangerous to Jews, Muslims, Blacks, and other marginalized groups.

While we do not excuse, endorse, or seek to explain away all statements made by Muslim or Black leaders, it is crucial that we separate legitimate criticism of the Israeli government and its policies from unwarranted accusations of anti-Semitism. Criticizing Israel (or lobby groups that promote pro-Israel policies) is not anti-Semitic or anti-Jewish, just like criticizing Saudi Arabia (or lobby groups that promote pro-Saudi policies) is not Islamophobic or anti-Muslim.  

Our moral convictions and faith values demand that we speak out and challenge injustice anywhere. We therefore strongly criticize the injustices of the Israeli occupation and discriminatory laws and policies against Palestinians.We also strongly criticize the injustices committed by the Saudi authoritarian regime including attacks in Yemen and anti-Semitic rhetoric. The same is true for injustices elsewhere.

Rep. Omar’s critiques of pro-Israel lobby efforts are especially necessary given ongoing efforts to silence criticism of Israel. Five days before the storm of attacks on Rep. Omar, the Senate passed a bill, S.1, which would provide federal protection to states that pass laws penalizing Americans who participate in boycotts aimed at Israel and its illegal settlements in occupied territories. The ACLU and others have condemned anti-free speech, anti-BDS bills like this. But unfortunately, 77 Senators voted to support it. This bill was backed by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the largest pro-Israel lobby group in the US and the one explicitly mentioned by Rep. Omar in her tweet.

Bills like S.1—and the allegations of anti-Semitism targeting those who have spoken out against the bill or who otherwise support the BDS movement—are particularly dangerous, since they risk dividing progressive movements that should otherwise be allies in seeking justice for all. While we fully expect some on the political right to target progressives in this way, it is discouraging to see similar attacks come from those on the left—in the case of S.1, from Democratic politicians and mainstream Jewish organizations (even as some internally recognize how such efforts hurt Jews, too). When those on the left join the chorus of criticism, they play into the divide-and-conquer strategy that those in power have used again and again to undermine the struggle for justice and equity for all.

Further, by focusing on progressive figures such as Omar, Tlaib, Sarsour, and others who speak out against the Israeli government and their lobbying allies in the US, we risk ignoring and simultaneously emboldening those who actually hate Jews and pose a physical threat to our communities. We need to accept in our American political discourse that anti-Zionism does not equate to anti-Semitism. When we fail to do this and instead conflate the two, the American Jewish community becomes less safe.

We must stand with those who speak truth to power, and we cannot allow progressive communities to be divided. Nor can we accept the concept of “progressive except Palestine” anymore. Instead, it is long past “time to break the silence on Palestine,” as Michelle Alexander (author of The New Jim Crow) wrote last month. Because it is only when we recognize that our various forms of struggle are connected and we advocate for the liberation of all that we will truly be free. 

From our own experiences, we know that things can — and must — be different. In our work, we help Muslims and Jews (and others) come together to solve the challenges in our cities, while also supporting those among us who are most vulnerable, including immigrants, refugees, people of color, LGBTQ people, and more. We educate people to reduce Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, and all forms of hate. And we know first-hand that while discourse around Israel and Palestine is fraught and emotional, we must engage deeply and honestly if we truly believe in justice for all.

If we are to be successful in building a just and equitable society, one that lives up to our American ideals, we must not forget where the threat really lies. If we attack those who are our allies, and who themselves are targets of oppression in this country, we will never achieve freedom and liberation for all.


Aneelah Afzali is Executive Director of MAPS-AMEN (American Muslim Empowerment Network).  She is a Harvard Law School graduate who left her legal career to serve as an interfaith justice advocate.

Jordan Goldwarg was most recently the Seattle Chapter Director of Kids4Peace International, an interfaith movement that empowers youth to be leaders for social change in the US, Israel, and Palestine.

First published in Common Dreams. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License.

Rep. Ilhan Omar, an outspoken and successful American Muslim Black woman, embodies the very threat to patriarchal white supremacy and colonialism that many in power find so disturbing. (Photo: Lorie Shaull/Flickr/cc)

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