Amanda Berman, co-founder of the Zioness Movement, asks progressive Jews to challenge anti-Semitism of the left.
The vast majority of American Jews have their home on the political left, according to Amanda Berman, executive director and co-founder of the New York City-based Zioness Movement. She says American Jews generally believe in human rights, want to see widespread health insurance and laws to protect workers, to limit global warming and to protect minorities against discrimination.
However, according to Berman, though most want to take part in events in support of progressive causes, these events have often become unwelcoming as organizers more and more often include anti-Zionism among the causes.
During the 10th annual Nelson Legacy program at Congregation Beth Shalom (in conjunction with the Cohn-Haddow Center for Judaic Studies at Wayne State University), Berman spoke June 5 on “Defending Israel against Its Demonizers.” On June 6, she explored “Advancing Progressive Values — Remaining Committed Zionists. Can We Do Both?”
Berman answered her own question: “Of course, we can. Zionism is the national liberation movement of an oppressed minority, Jews. As progressives, we should stand for Israel. Asking us to decide between progressive values and Zionism presents us with a false choice.”
But organizers do present that false choice. Organizers of the June 7 Washington, D.C., Dyke March banned the Jewish Pride flag, with a Star of David in rainbow colors. Yael Horowitz, a march organizer, explained on Facebook that the event would ban that flag along with all “nationalist symbols,” including those representing “nations that have specific oppressive tendencies.”
However, according to many sources, organizers would permit marchers to display the Palestinian flag. A march for lesbian rights in Chicago in 2017 made similar decisions, expelling three women for displaying the Star of David but permitting Palestinian symbols.
Berman considered how progressive Jews can respond to feeling unwelcome. In the easiest response, Jews just decide not to attend. Berman maintains this path of least resistance fails for several reasons: “If we stay away, we fail to express our commitments to people who deserve our support. Also, if we do not stand up for other marginalized communities, they will not know to stand up for us.”
Furthermore, she said that “weaponizing anti-Zionism on the left amounts to a gift to the political right. It expels allies from progressive efforts, and it makes progressive causes safe for anti-Semitism.”
Instead, according to Berman, “American Jews must stand for marginalized groups, but we must not forget to stand up for ourselves.”
When Berman decided to take part in the Women’s March on the day after the presidential inauguration of Donald Trump, she found that the organizers welcomed a wide swath of different groups but demanded participants display no Jewish stars. Berman and a friend decided to attend and to display Jewish symbols.
“It turned out that a lot of people felt the way I did, feeling excluded from causes that matters to them because of anti-Semitism,” she said.
Though Zioness began with activities, in August of 2017 it began to form chapters. “We quickly grew to 28 chapters,” she said. “We need more professional staff to keep track of all our activities.”
All sorts of progressive causes now are infected with anti-Semitism, according to Berman. When non-Jews explain that they are anti-Zionist, not anti-Semitic, we need to challenge their assumptions. No one has standing to tell black Americans what anti-Black rhetoric is legitimate; so, too, no one should have the standing to tell Jews what anti-Semitic rhetoric is legitimate. “We need to reclaim Zionism as a progressive value.”
Rabbi Emeritus David Nelson of Beth Shalom said, “Ms. Berman . . . is a visionary and an important new voice in our polarized U.S. world.”
Sheyna Wexelberg-Clouser of Oak Park said, “I found Amanda Berman to be an inspirational speaker. She starkly described how anti-Semitism has taken root in the political left. She also spoke passionately about the need for pro-Israel Jews to be present and fight for our right to participate in the dialogue and not allow ourselves to be shut out.
“She made me aware that we cannot be passive and abandon the causes that we feel strongly about because those who are pro-Palestinian have so effectively changed the paradigm.”
For details on the Zioness Movement, go to zioness.org.