Jewish students’ event points toward liberatory possibilities
Letter to the Editor | Thursday, November 15, 2018
On Friday, Nov. 9, more than 80 people attended a three-hour conference at Notre Dame titled “A World Without Hate: A Discussion Against Anti-Semitism.” Organized by Jewish students (including myself) in just two weeks, the afternoon’s discussion included Latina, African-American, Muslim, Native American and queer speakers who connected their struggles to the fight against anti-Semitism. Despite the organizers’ divergent views on Israel, we all enthusiastically welcomed the support and participation of Student Voices for Palestine. Friday’s event brought up exciting possibilities for building transformative social justice coalitions.
We picked the date because it marked the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the horrific “night of broken glass” when Nazis destroyed and plundered more than a thousand synagogues. The date also marked the second anniversary of Donald Trump’s electoral victory that emboldened America’s far-right hooligans who have since committed at least 18 white nationalist killings. Finally, the date aligned with anti-fascist Jews’ call for coordinated events “For a World Without Pogroms, For a Future Without Fascism.”
Most directly, we organized our event in rapid response to America’s worst ever anti-Semitic massacre: On October 27, a white nationalist named Robert Bowers gunned down 11 Jews at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue. Hours before the shooting, he posted online a conspiracy theory that Jews, through the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), were bringing so-called “invaders” into the country. In a prior post, Bowers had claimed, “It’s the filthy EVIL Jews Bringing the (sic) Filthy EVIL Muslims into the Country!”
The tragedy made clear that Bowers’s anti-Semitism could not be separated from his xenophobia, Islamophobia or white nationalism. These bigotries reinforced each other, reminding us that we must tear down the entire web of oppressions and not just one strand.
Thus, we chose to build bridges across struggles, recognizing that our own liberation is bound with others’. During the roundtable and panel discussions, religious studies professor Stacy Davis pointed out that hatred of Jews is a central component of white nationalist ideology and that Christian rightists use the same Biblical interpretations to bolster anti-Jewish and anti-black prejudices. The Student Coalition for Immigrant Advocacy’s secretary Odalis Gonzalez commented on how xenophobic and anti-Semitic discourses interlock by portraying immigrants and Jews as feared, hated “Others.” Gender Studies graduate student Marjorie Housely described the troublesome role of “passing” in both queer and Jewish cultures. Muslim interfaith dialogue participant Rabia Shariff and Ariel Niforatos, of Native American heritage, observed how ignorance perpetuates mutually reinforcing prejudices.
Jewish students’ anecdotes about insensitivity in South Bend strengthened my appreciation for the conference’s intersectional approach. When Notre Dame professors leave Judaism out of theology curricula and dock points for absences on Jewish holidays, they probably are also being insensitive to other religious minorities. The same bigot who gave a Jew a malicious Nazi salute probably harbors deep bigotries against people of color. The same students who crib immature “Jewish jokes” from the web probably tell equally unfunny jokes about other ethnicities.
I brought up the first-floor murals in Notre Dame’s Main Building and the exclusionary message they send by celebrating perpetrators of historic atrocities against indigenous, black, Muslim and Jewish people. These paintings glorify Christopher Columbus’s genocidal invasion of the Americas and portray indigenous and black people as docile and uncivilized. Less remarked on, the murals also include a glowing portrait of Spain’s Queen Isabella who, along with her husband King Ferdinand, oversaw the conquest of Spain’s remaining Muslim-ruled territories, initiated the Spanish Inquisition to weed out Jewish beliefs and expelled Jews from the kingdom. I advocated to the audience that we join in support of the Native American students’ current campaign to address these demeaning images.
The audience overwhelmingly supported the idea: Let’s build bridges between movements.
By contrast, more mainstream Jewish voices have chosen to build walls, fortifying themselves from other liberation struggles and from Judaism’s rich tradition of social justice. The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) claims to represent this country’s Jews in the fight against anti-semitism, but in reality the organization acts more like a hate group. It has defended spying on American Muslims, police departments responsible for murdering unarmed African Americans, and Israel’s frequent, brutal massacres of Palestinians. The ADL has even opposed Muslims’ effort to build a mosque and community center simply because it happened to be near the World Trade Center site. In response to the Pittsburgh shooting, the ADL’s director wrote in the New York Times reaffirming the group’s absurd position that it is anti-Semitic to oppose Israel’s “right to exist.”
In reality, no nation-state has a “right to exist,” and our own Declaration of Independence reminds us that when a government becomes tyrannical, “it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it.” Plenty of principled anti-Zionists, including Jews such as myself, insist that we should oppose Israeli settler colonialism just as we should oppose U.S. settler colonialism, and we should protest Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s war crimes just as we should protest those of Trump and any other tyrant (including Putin and Assad, who some on the Left and Right shamefully support).
The Israeli government, falsely claiming to represent world Jewry, responded to the Pittsburgh massacre by doubling down on its opportunistic support for Trump, even though the U.S. president’s bigoted rhetoric has fueled far-right violence. When Trump arrived in Pittsburgh after the shooting, Israel’s U.S. ambassador was the only public official to greet him. In a speech ostensibly honoring the recent massacre’s victims, Netanyahu praised Trump and avoided talking about the far-right ideologies behind the shooting. Instead, he absurdly called anti-Zionism the “new anti-Semitism.” For the Israeli government and its staunchest supporters, all that matters is that Trump uncritically supports Israel’s militaristic, ethnocratic, apartheid policies.
Despite Netanyahu’s pro-Trump propaganda, some 72 percent of American Jews think Trump’s inflammatory words and policies are partly to blame for the Pittsburgh attack. On the 2016 campaign trail, Trump refused to condemn the KKK or its former leader David Duke. Last year, Trump praised the “very fine people” among the swastika-wielding white nationalists who gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia, and chanted “Jews will not replace us!” His repeated demonization of the Jewish billionaire George Soros has invoked classic anti-Semitism tropes.
It is shameful to see mainstream Jewish institutions burning bridges with marginalized groups rather than seeking victories through strong social justice coalitions. It is painful to see them crying wolf over principled anti-Zionism when actual anti-Semitism is so present and dangerous.
Friday’s event pointed toward a much more liberatory approach for grassroots Jews and their allies. It was heartening to see many people stay the whole three hours to show their solidarity with local Jews and discuss how to bring different struggles together. At a time when more than half of America’s religiously-motivated hate crimes target Jews, it is important to realize that we will not achieve security by siding with the colonial, Christian and capitalist status quo that will never fully accept us. Instead, we need to build bridges with other marginalized groups and collectively engage in what Judaism calls “tikkun olam,” or repairing the world.
Judaism’s first-century BCE sage Hillel asked: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I?” At Friday’s event, we tried to be for ourselves and for others. The experience brought me a lot of hope.
The views expressed in this Letter to the Editor are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.