A panel on anti-Semitism hosted by Jewish Voice for Peace Action
A panel on anti-Semitism hosted by Jewish Voice for Peace Action featured (clockwise from left): historian Barbara Ransby, commentator Peter Beinart, media studies professor Marc Lamont Hill and Democratic Rep. Rashida Tlaib. It was moderated by Rabbi Alissa Wise, a Jewish Voice for Peace activist. (Separate screenshots from Facebook via JTA)

Thoughts on “Dismantling Antisemitism,” the controversial discussion that featured Rashida Tlaib.

At the Jewish News, we have used this year’s Antisemitism Project to attempt to get at some of the bigger questions of this “ancient evil” in 2020: what constitutes it, how we talk about it and what we can do to end it.

This year, we also published an interview with Democratic Rep. Rashida Tlaib of Detroit —  by far our most controversial article of the year, largely because many of our readers believe Tlaib has expressed antisemitic views through her criticism of Israel and support of the Boycott, Divest, Sanctions (BDS) movement.

AntiSemitism Project Logo

“So much for your series on antisemitism,” one reader wrote afterwards — as in, they believed we had sacrificed our credibility on the subject by sitting down with the congresswoman.

Maybe it was fitting, then, that 2020 ended with an event that inevitably tied these two narratives together. On Dec. 15, the sixth night of Chanukah, Tlaib appeared on a virtual panel entitled “Dismantling Antisemitism, Winning Justice” — a panel heavily scrutinized, and criticized, by many Jews. It seems we have a responsibility to talk about this again. Once more unto the breach, dear friends.

The panel was cosponsored by several Jewish groups including JVP Action (an arm of Jewish Voice for Peace) and IfNotNow, as well as Jewish Currents magazine (where, full disclosure, I have contributed freelance pieces and was interviewed myself). Tlaib was the attention-grabber, but she was just one of four panelists, including Barbara Ransby, a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago and fellow Detroit native; and author and New York Times columnist Peter Beinart, the only Jew on the panel (save moderator Rabbi Alissa Wise, deputy director of JVP).

Andrew Lapin
Andrew Lapin

A fourth scheduled panelist, Temple University professor and former CNN commentator Marc Lamont Hill, did not appear “in-person” owing to a family tragedy, but submitted pre-recorded video messages instead.

The panel attracted attention far beyond JVP’s usual circle. Many folks watching and commenting were angry that a panel with that title and lineup was even taking place.

So, what was the goal here? Yes, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was discussed, as were objections to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s working definition of antisemitism, which includes engaging in certain anti-Israel dialogue in its definition and is in the process of becoming broadly adopted on a global scale.

But this wasn’t the main thrust. During the panel, Wise summed up what actually became the focus: “All struggles are interconnected. We can’t fight antisemitism without fighting anti-Black racism or Islamophobia or anti-Palestinian racism.”

And so, a panel purportedly about antisemitism largely shied away from discussing the particulars of antisemitism.

Panelists instead highlighted moments in history, and in their personal lives, when Jews have linked arms with other oppressed people. Ransby, for example, discussed what she’s learned about activism from her Jewish husband.

For her part, Tlaib, addressing Jews, said, “I don’t hate you. I absolutely love you.” She added that she takes inspiration from “my Jewish neighbors,” highlighting Detroit Jews for Justice’s activism work. But she said little about what she specifically understands antisemitism to be.

How Do You Define Antisemitism?

Certainly, many Jews would agree that we are engaged in a very similar struggle to other minority groups, and that erasing bigotry anywhere will help us, too.

But is that really the end of it? Surely it’s not minimizing these other struggles to at least acknowledge that antisemitism itself is unique and operates according to different rules and different histories — including within Israel discourse?

Also: can we say that, even though these struggles are linked, sometimes they are also in conflict because sometimes other marginalized people also believe that attacking Jews is a form of liberation?

Late in the panel, there were overtures to this. First, in one of his prerecorded messages, Hill said that people have to be vigilant about antisemitism from within their own communities.

“I can’t imagine a vision of freedom that doesn’t include Jewish people. How are Black folk going to be free and Jewish people not?” he said, specifically taking to task the rapper and actor Ice Cube for posting antisemitic messages on Twitter. (Cube has since struck up a friendship with Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, and even spoke at a ZOA virtual gala.)

Then, Beinart made two bold points. First, he noted, “There is antisemitism on the left … Antisemitism has shown its ability to morph and find its way into all different manners of movements, even in movements that might in other ways be speaking on behalf of justice.” He further expressed a desire to “make sure that progressive movements are never tainted by antisemitism.”

Second, and perhaps most controversially for this panel, Beinart added, “Zionist Jews should not be excluded from progressive spaces.” He went on to parse the various ways different Jews define Zionism and debate it amongst themselves. The JN is just such an organization: we are a Zionist publication, but that doesn’t prevent us from having honest conversations about the term.

There wasn’t any elaboration on this point from anyone else (JVP defines itself as anti-Zionist). But if you were looking for a productive topic to explore in a left-leaning dialogue about “dismantling antisemitism,” that seems like a pretty good one.

In her concluding remarks, Tlaib reiterated part of what Beinart said by acknowledging antisemitism on the left. “It’s a problem in our country,” she said. “If anybody comes through my doors or through any forum to try to push antisemitism forward, you will hear me being loud with my bullhorn to tell them to get the hell out.”

But without a clear idea from Tlaib or most of the other panelists about how to define antisemitism, how do we know when that bullhorn comes out?

By way of explanation for why the panel was titled “Dismantling Antisemitism,” JVP’s Tallie Ben Daniel said that antisemitism is “used as a political tool and used to divide people… Humans have made it. Humans can undo it.”

But how, and who will dismantle it? Everyone has different ideas. Today, an oppositional panel with the similar title “Dismantling Anti-Semitism: Jews Talk Justice” is being held by Combat Anti-Semitism, a coalition of many Jewish and Zionist groups including AJC, B’nai B’rith International, Hadassah and the Jewish Federations of North America. This panel is making a point of spotlighting Jewish and pro-Israel voices, and devotes much of its presentation to defending the IHRA definition of antisemitism, clearly setting its own terms for discussion.

For now, the debate over antisemitism remains stuck. Before we can dismantle it, we must get better at defining it. And that’s something not even Jews can agree on right now.

For us, The Antisemitism Project is not over. The JN will continue to pursue stories about this topic beyond 2020. And we will continue to engage figures from all sides of the debate about this singularly important topic. We hope that we can continue to find responsible ways to do so.

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  1. Zion and Jew are identical. Israel is the original homeland of the Jewish people as Italy is that of Italian Americans. Boycott Serbia? Divest from Ethiopia? Sanction Sri Lanka? That’s anti-Semitism and only the left has trouble defining Jew hatred!

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